News:

Chinese official says slow response made virus epidemic worse

How Chinese politics affected coronavirus response?

When Wuhan’s mayor took to live national television to discuss the rapidly escalating outbreak of coronavirus in his city, he came primed for a rare – and very prolonged – display of self criticism.

Over nearly an hour Zhou Xianwang said his work “wasn’t performed well enough”, that the city government had failed to provide timely information or act on what it knew, and offered his own resignation, although it is yet to be accepted.

For once, the official position matched the complaints of many people on the ground in Wuhan, who had been stewing for weeks about official failings they feared had turbo-charged the epidemic just when it should have been easiest to contain.

His city of 11 million people, famous inside China for everything from ancient poetry to a very political swim by Mao Zedong, was less well known abroad until 23 January, when plans were announced to seal it off in an unprecedented mass quarantine.

China soon won international plaudits for a huge mobilisation, including the near impossible feat of building two new hospitals in as many weeks, even as Wuhan became an international byword for a new epidemic.

Yet, as information about the early days of the outbreak has slowly filtered out of China, it has become increasingly clear that the same political system that allowed Beijing to order such a dramatic response, also initially allowed the virus to fester.

The country’s authoritarian bureaucracy offers officials few incentives to be proactive, and many to attempt to hide emerging crises, said Prof Sam Crane, the chair of Asian studies at Williams College, Massachusetts.

“If we consider not only Sars in 2003 but also large-scale disasters like the Songhua River contamination in 2005 and the Wenzhou train crash in 2011, and we could add other incidents, we see a pattern of denial and cover-up and evasion on the part of local leaders,” he said.

“[They are] afraid of being associated with ‘problems’ that could reflect badly on their personal careers and create headaches for higher level leaders.”

When the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, its scale and lethality were uncertain. A high-profile public campaign on disease control risked highlighting failures that allowed a new disease to emerge at all, and denting the economy, while the threats from the disease itself were far more nebulous.

So during the crucial early days of the outbreak, local officials seemed at least as concerned about covering up the outbreak as they were about halting any spread.

People who posted about the mystery new illness were arrested for “spreading false news”; patients who turned up at hospitals with typical symptoms and links to the wildlife market at the centre of the outbreak said they were not tested for the disease.

By 10 January, China had identified the new coronavirus, made its genome public and created testing kits. Yet between 3 and 16 January, authorities in Wuhan claimed there were no new cases, and no evidence of human-to-human transmission, key drivers of any new epidemic.

The systems that might provide a check on corrupt officials or efforts to bury bad news in other countries, from a free press to local charities and activists, do not do so in China.

During his eight years in power President Xi Jinping has dramatically reduced the already narrow space for civil society.

Even the “back channels” of information that are meant to keep the leadership properly informed about events nationwide, while official media churns out propaganda, have reportedly been drying up under Xi.

Crane said: “After the initial period of typical local level evasion and bungling, the response this time has been faster and more transparent than Sars in 2003. But that is probably due to better medical science infrastructure. Xi Jinping’s governing style has done nothing, really, to change the systemic problems.

“Indeed, he might be making them worse, insofar as information is subject to political control and many local cadres now live in fear of being called out for corruption and thus more likely to hide problems.”

Zhou, the Wuhan mayor, even made an apparent allusion to systemic problems, with a subtle but pointed dig at the central government. His hands were tied, he said, by laws that barred him from declaring an epidemic without permission.

It is not clear yet if efforts which seized headlines worldwide will be enough to halt the spread of a disease which has now infected more people in China over two months than Sars did over nine months.

“They will take these draconian measures not for health benefits but for the political benefits of seeming to be in control,” said Jorge Guajardo, who served as Mexico’s ambassador to Beijing during the 2009 outbreak of H1N1, or swine flu.

Reports from Wuhan of shortages of basic equipment, such as masks and gowns, are a reminder that government logistics are far from infallible. Details are still unclear as to exactly where the disease originated, when the first cases emerged and when the numbers of those infected will stop growing exponentially.

When the crisis ends there may be a leadership shakeup in Wuhan, in Hubei province and perhaps among health officials beyond that.

The first head has already rolled, with the health chief of Huanggang city being removed from her post after a TV interview, in which she struggled to answer basic questions about the virus response, went viral.

But any changes will be to protect the system and the central leadership in response to fallout from the crisis, not to shake it up.

Xi, who has built up something of a personality cult, appears to have taken a finely balanced public approach. State media has shown him in control but not the sole political face of a government campaign whose results are still uncertain.


No comments

Inspirational Quotes

inspiration/box

Poster Speaks

Poster Speaks/box

Trending

randomposts

Followers