A wake-up call: coronavirus

Posted: 2020-02-09 04:59:57

The memory of SARS

Hundreds of people have died already, mostly in China. As of now, the number of confirmed cases is racing towards 40k. Some raise concerns about how the lack of medical personnel to handle the flood of patients might be biasing the number of fatalities and confirmed patients. The fact that this is not the first epidemic outbreak that started in China adds to the gravity of the situation. Anger, frustration, grievance, and terror. It mustn't be just I who feels all these mixed feelings

This is frustrating because this isn't the first time China, as a country, faced such a rampant spread of infectious disease. I still remember, in 2003, people in Seoul wearing masks out on the streets, and watching PSA in the television urging people to stay indoors as much as possible to contain the disease. The memory has faded over time but the chaos and fear are still vivid. It was SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which broke out of the Guangdong province of China that plagued the world.

The first case of SARS was identified on the 16th of November 2002 in Foshan city of Guangdong. It was a day after the 16th National Congress of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) had come to a grand finale. China chose Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao as their succeeding leaders. China was about to see a huge transition of power, not just the President but all the way down to the governors and mayors of cities. So one "sick" person in Guangdong could not be brought under the radar of people who had the power and ability to prevent a disaster that was about to come.

In the meantime, the virus kept spreading. It was only January of 2003 that the public health agency of Guangdong took notice of this ever-spreading virus. According to a report, the existence and transmission of SARS was reported to the Guangdong CDC, and my conjecture is that Beijing must have received a similar report as well. But it wasn't taken seriously at the time while the virus capitalized on this opportunity to make its way into Hong Kong. The so-called 'superspreader' of SARS was treated at a hospital in the city of Guangzhou on January 31, which ended up infecting a number of medical staff as a result. A professor, suspected to have been affected by the 'superspreader', visited Hong Kong to attend the wedding of one of his relatives, which in retrospect started the global transmission of SARS. Considering Hong Kong's population density and how international the city is, it shouldn't be surprising how fast the virus would have found its way to numerous other countries, infecting thousands of people. Later, Hotel Metropolis room 911 where Professor Liu stayed became the epicenter of the global outbreak.

SARS finally landed in Beijing the following March; however, the CCP was still irresponsive. They had an important event called the 'Two Sessions' ahead of them. I could only suspect they hadn't taken any action for something as small as a disease couldn't/shouldn't/wouldn't ruin an important event called 'the Two Sessions' nor should it slow down the economic growth that China was desperately in need of. Hence, continued the information censorship.

But time has changed. It was already 20 years after Deng Xiaoping's economic reform which opened up the nation's economy. Even 10 years later than Deng's Nanxun (historic tour of South China) which further made the opening up process an irreversible course. So people were destined to find out about the epidemic through hearsay and rumors. Finally, the journalists who went back and forth between mainland and Hong Kong broke the information blockade. They found it suspicious that everyone in Hong Kong was wearing a mask. The 'one country two systems' policy was being respected at the time, and so Hong Kongers were already informed of the outbreak of the unidentified disease. Soon after the CCP began releasing limited information to WHO, a retired medic in the People's Liberation Army, Jiang Yanyong, exposed that there are already more than 120 patients within three of the military hospitals. The state-controlled Chinese media did not pick it up but foreign journalists quickly spread the news, and it didn't take long until many other countries including the WHO started demanding the truth. Something was about to happen.

Surprisingly, the newly inaugurated President Hu Jintao fired the Health minister Zhang Wenkang and the Mayor of Beijing Meng Xuenong for mishandling the circumstances, and urged all of China to promote transparency to combat the epidemic. It took effect immediately. The state-controlled news that had been reporting only 37 confirmed cases in Beijing soon fixed their numbers and disclosed that 340 in Beijing and 1800 nationwide had been infected by what now we call SARS. The information channels opened up and the regional municipalities started utilizing their enormous resources to quarantine and contain SARS. In the process, bureaucrats who were lazy to respond, or attempted to cover up and conceal the info were either punished, fired, or stripped of the status in the CCP (aka kicked out).

SARS was testament to how China became this ever-interconnected and multi-faceted complex society. The death toll stopped at 774. But the incident influenced and changed the Chinese societies more than anything. Under the Hu's administration, China saw incredible economic growth which produced a strong middle class in China, and they started to affect the politics in various different ways. The CCP officials had to respond to unexpected accidents and crises in an agile fashion ranging from industrial disasters, traffic accidents and road closures, public health and food security, to environment pollution. The government engaged in people's daily lives ever more proactively, not to mention the freedom of speech was promoted than any time in the history of China.

Why again?

The 2019 novel coronavirus epidemic is astonishingly a carbon copy of what happened in 2003. Why though? Why again? We must ask. Just as there was the 'Two Sessions' in 2003 which basically prevented the officials from reporting the first identified case up to Beijing, there was a provincial 'Two Sessions' planned in Hubei and Wuhan in January 2020. Considering the first case of coronavirus occurred between Novermber and December of 2019, we can suspect that something similar happened here. It is somewhat frustrating to see this happen in a country that self-praised its 'holy war' against SARS. Was CCP entranced by the 'China Dream'?

The meritocracy introduced into the bureaucratic system of the Chinese politburo could have been the culprit as weird as it may sound. Performance evaluation reflected in their promotion/demotion encouraged the officials to cover up what they did wrong while hyping up their feats. To be honest, this is a very typical problem of the Korean military. The officials leave their workplace in a few years after all; therefore, they had to make sure nothing bad happens within their term to get the promotion they longed for, which in other words meant covering up their 'mistakes'. This shouldn't come as a surprise since the AIDS epidemic that broke out soon after Premier Li Keqiang took office as the governor of the Henan province haunted him for quite some time. At this point, it was really less about 'performance' and more about 'avoiding mishaps', especially during seasons like the 'Two Sessions' when all of China looks at you.

In retrospect, it all comes down to 'oblivion'. Cover-ups and censorship. They are all done in hopes that people would remain oblivious to your wrongdoings. When the medic Jiang Yanyong was arrested and the whistleblower Li Wenliang was arrested for spreading unfounded rumors threatening social stability, it clearly stifled speech. It sends a clear message that you will be punished for speaking the truth. That it will come at a cost. And unfortunately, China is powerful enough to actually punish you. The aforementioned two people are now praised for their 'bravery' after being brought to court trials and being released, but what does it tell us if it takes 'courage' to ask your own country to take notice of the epidemic and to take action? Not to mention it wasn't even their well-intentioned effort to warn your loved ones to be careful but rather how the CCP viewed and interpreted the actions that brought them to trial. It sends a clear message that your treatment will be at the mercy of the CCP's opinion of you.

China is huge. While it is perceived as extremely difficult to control that huge of a population, Xi Jinping's administration has shown us it is not impossible to put the entire country under surveillance. Some say this coronavirus justifies China's being a surveillance state (link) but it has never been whether China has the ability to do so that was questionable. It was whether their political system allows people to shut down the surveillance system if they so choose. The surveillance system under a dictatorship is even more dangerous because it is at the whims of the person in power. If the ruler is good, the system will serve people's benefit; if not, who knows how it will be used?

Epidemics will happen again according to experts. That is out of question. The real question is, will we be able to contain it if any country tries to contain information? In a world where everywhere is ever more connected, a virus can spread in as short as a few hours. An epidemic in China is no longer just a problem that stays in China. Will the people of China keep supporting the censorship? If coronavirus brought something out of the shadow, it is never the surveillance state, but the harmful intent of the information censorship. Unless the CCP reestablishes their policy on transparency and freedom of speech, history will repeat itself and now the world will have to pay for it.

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