The Wuhan coronavirus that first emerged in the central city of Wuhan in China last December and believed to have originated from the sprawling wet markets active in the city, has rapidly galloped across the world. The human, as well as the economic costs that virus brought along with it, have been unprecedented. From Mexico in the Americas to Australia in the Southern Hemisphere, to Europe, the United States, India and hundreds of other countries around the globe came to a standstill as the COVID-19 cases in the countries swelled, forcing governments to enforce strict lockdowns, in a bid to tame the contagion.
As of date, more than 40 million people have been affected and upwards of 1 million people had lost their lives to the virus. Even as several organisations around the world are scrambling to manufacture a potent vaccine to blunt the debilitating effects of the contagion, the virus continues its unabated march, posing an existential crisis for the humankind. The economic toll the coronavirus continues to extract has led many analysts to describe it as the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Amidst the gloom, the Financial Times has embarked upon a major series, investigating the cause of the outbreak and whether the catastrophe could have been averted by better policy formulation, transparency and response to the crisis. In its first part, the investigation dwells upon what really went wrong in Wuhan and China’s bungled response to the crisis that led the disease to snowball into a raging pandemic afflicting millions of people around the world.
Chinese government downplayed the threat posed by the coronavirus
Even as coronavirus was taking root in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the officials of the Communist Party of China(CPC), a party that rules China, downplayed the threat posed by the novel contagion. On January 3, China officially communicated to the World Health Organisation that “severe pneumonia of unknown aetiology” has been discovered in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province and with a population of 11 million. However, for the first three weeks, Chinese officials minimised the crisis, claiming there were only a few dozen cases reported and brushed aside the human transmission.
Finally, on January 21, the Chinese government broke its silence on the epidemic that ominously sweeping the city of Wuhan and warned against the human-to-human transmission of the virus.
Wang Linfa, the director of the emerging infectious diseases programme at Duke-NUS Medical School, was in Wuhan during the mid January. He was alarmed at the complacency of the city officials. With China having the wisdom of tackling SARS contagion about 17 years ago, he expected the Chinese officials and the government to be nimble on their feet to tackle the emerging coronavirus crisis. However, Prof Wang claimed that the restaurants in Wuhan around January 15-16 were jam packed, no health screening was done by the officials and neither were the people seen wearing masks.
Laziness and complacency of the local Chinese authorities aggravated the coronavirus crisis
The investigation further revealed that the district administration authorities in Wuhan and cities and towns around it endlessly waited for the official instructions from their seniors before taking preventive measures to curb the dangerous spread of the virus. As per Mr Gao, who lived in a village about 120 km from Wuhan, the life continued business as usual. When he accosted the local authorities of a dangerous contagion currently spreading in Wuhan, they expressed their helplessness of being able to do nothing since they have not been issued orders from the higher level officials.
On January 23, when Wuhan entered strict lockdown for a few weeks, the countryside in China was still unbeknownst to what was transpiring in the Hubei province capital. Mr Gao then approached one rung higher up China’s administrative hierarchy, asking them to institute similar measures as carried out by the Wuhan city. However, the officials of Huanggang, the city that administers Mr Gao’s village, said that they needed to wait for orders from higher municipal officials.
Despite the looming threat of virus, China continued with its pre-Chinese year dinner in Wuhan
In the second week of January, it was confirmed that the virus had crossed the Chinese boundaries and had gone global as Wuhan-linked coronavirus cases were reported from Bangkok. The sudden appearance of coronavirus cases in Bangkok prompted Japan to call the Chinese claims of only a dozen people affected by the coronavirus as nonsense. A study at Imperial College of London concluded that for the virus to be spreading beyond Chinese borders, there had to be at least 4,000 symptomatic people in Wuhan.
Despite the alarming rise in infection in Wuhan and cases being reported in Bangkok and other parts of the world, China went ahead with a large annual legislative meeting and pre-Chinese new year dinner which was attended by 40,000 families and was held in Wuhan on January 18. The event is dubbed as a super spreader of the coronavirus that precipitated the number of cases in the city and later to the rest of the world.
Collusion between China and WHO to underplay the coronavirus crisis
The contradictory and somewhat assuaging messages from China and WHO sowed confusion among the people about the lethality and contagiousness of the coronavirus infection. On January 14, the acting head of WHO’s emerging diseases unit, Maria Van Kerkhove, downplayed the threat, saying there is “limited human-to-human transmission” in Wuhan. Later, it issued a clarification, saying that human transmission was “possible” and “may” be occuring. Six days later, Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese epidemiologist and a government adviser, confirmed that virus could actually spred between people.
President Xi Jinping’s administration initially criticised the countries that called for travel bans aimed at Chinese nationals. Officially, even WHO doesn’t support travel bans during the pandemic, as was cited by the Chinese government while critiquing the countries that blocked Chinese nationals from entering their countries. However, later in the March, when the pandemic seemed to be under control in China and was raging in other parts of the world, China backpedalled on its view on travel bans and immediately barred almost all foreign nationals.
Three weeks before China officially acknowledged coronavirus, Wuhan hospitals were replete with viral pneumonia cases
About 3 weeks before China officially acknowledged the coronavirus epidemic, hospitals in central Chinese city of Wuhan was reporting a growing number of viral pneumonia cases. Doctors from hospitals across the city informed their higher officials and Central Hospital of Wuhan about the emergence of a previously unknown disease that showed symptoms of viral pneumonia. One Dr Yin contact local health official Wang Weyong, apprising him about the same. Wang was not surprised at all, claiming similar cases were being reported from other hospitals in the city as well.
Wang assured Dr Yin that he would reply to him after reporting the situation to his seniors. However, the reply did not come and Dr Yin continued pursuing Wang for his response. Dr Yin even suggested filling the infectious disease report card(IDRC), an online reporting system shared by local and national healthcare authorities, but he was rebuffed. Mr Wang later admitted to Dr Yin that the Wuhan Central did not follow the established standards and protocols laid down by the city and health commissions.
However, within days, the number of coronavirus cases being reported in China’s hospitals were least of the concerns of the hospital authorities. Dr Yin recounts how even hospital’s own staff began falling sick, with at least 56 hospitalised by January 24. The outbreak sweeping through the hospital staff was a telltale sign of the human transmission of the infection.
Opacity of the Chinese system exacerbated the coronavirus crisis
The lack of transparency in China’s administration added to the woes surrounding the coronavirus crisis. The investigation by the Financial Times into the causes of the coronavirus outbreak revealed that the local Chinese officials had little means to communicate with the public in crisis situation. They are raised to protect and preserve the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China. Known of them were conditioned to operate in an environment where transparency and communicating with people about the growing threat the virus posed would have severely dampened the alarming spread of the infection.
The most important job of the public relations department is to keep the party in power and not to extend transparency to public. The pandemic exposed the administration’s weakness. As a result doctors reporting cases in Wuhan and surrounding cities and towns were variously advised, sometimes contradictory suggestions, and were at times rebuffed and threatened to report new cases.
The most famous case was of Dr Li Wenliang, a 33-year-old doctor who warned the authorities of a mystery virus prevalent in Wuhan. Dr Li was reprimanded by the authorities for “spreading rumours”, although he had only discussed it in a private chat group. Li’s subsequent death due to coronavirus highlighted the China’s clumsy and heavy-handed approach in stamping out the transparency and provoked a public outcry against the administration for suppressing the details of the virus.
Real Chinese infections less that the actual cases
The investigation by Financial Times also revealed that China significantly lowballed the number of cases reported across the country. The Communist Party of China, by understating the number of coronavirus cases active in the country, attempted to salvage its reputation that had taken an obvious beating following the initial mismanagement of the contagion.
China enforced one of the strictest lockdowns across the world, with the entire population forced to remain indoor from late January to mid-February. The diagnosis was not made as the population were cooped up inside their homes. This is one of the reasons why China reported dramatically less number of coronavirus cases, besides underreporting the actual number of cases.
The scepticism around the low count of caseloads was also shared by the residents of Wuhan who believed that the Chinese government has not been entirely truthful regarding the actual count of people who had died of the virus. Thousands of stacks of urn outside funeral homes in Hubei province had seeded doubts among the residents of Wuhan about the real tally of COVID-19 related deaths.