If China had been able to nip Covid-19 in the bud and contain it in Wuhan, the world would not have been going through a pandemic and its consequent recession.
So, it is important to note the mistakes China made in its initial response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, and how it could have been averted. These mistakes are by now well known, but bear repetition.
The Wuhan countdown
On 30 December, some doctors in Wuhan began to realise there was a new SARS-like virus infecting people. However, Wuhan was placed under a lockdown only on 23 January. The three weeks in between were wasted because local authorities in Wuhan were trying to downplay the situation, and trying to cover it up.
They had a lot to lose if it got out that there was an infectious virus taking lives under their watch. For one, the illegal sale of live wild animals in the Wuhan wet market would be exposed, raising questions about the role of local authorities in enforcing law.
Wuhan authorities kept denying the virus was being transmitted from human to human for many days, thus letting the virus travel not just across China but the whole world. Treating it as a normal pneumonia infection not transmitted from human to human, the authorities stopped updating even the pneumonia figures from 5 to 10 January because they were busy in a political conference.
Eight healthcare professionals, including doctors and radiologists who had seen CT scans of lungs, were punished by the police for ‘spreading rumours’ on WeChat groups. These professionals were raising concerns of a SARS-like virus after they saw that some of them began to be infected by coming in contact with the patients. But the authorities wanted to continue denying human-to-human transmission. They went to the extent of banning healthcare professionals from seeing their own CT scan results.
It was only in the last week of January that Wuhan really switched gear. With the lockdown, Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang admitted that information was not disclosed in a timely manner and offered to resign.
Labelling truth as rumour
The punishment given to eight healthcare professionals was widely reported in the media and publicised by the government, thus silencing other doctors who wanted to speak up. Doctors and radiologists could see the numbers swell up in the hospitals, but dared not speak up for fear of police.
This silencing meant that the public was unaware of the virus and happily celebrated the New Year that included thousands of people. People went about their normal lives, getting and spreading the infection.
By the time the Chinese government realised something is wrong and got into action, it was too late. Hospitals in Wuhan couldn’t handle the volume of patients coming in with Covid-19 symptoms.
The famous whistleblower doctor who died of the virus himself, Dr Li Wenliang told Caixin Global, “Doctors and disease prevention officials have known how serious it is, but none dared to speak out.” Adding, “We should have taken the risk and spoken up.”
All he had done was tell 150 fellow doctors on a WeChat group of the virus. Some of the group members took a screenshot, did not even hide his identity, and circulated it. It went viral, because people in China remember the SARS virus that killed 800 people in 2002-03. The screenshot was selective — it did not include the part that said this one looks like a new virus — the SARS-CoV2. “At first I was angry at the people who spread the messages without hiding my identity. But later I understood that they were too worried about their families and friends when they distributed the message,” Dr Li told Caixin Global before he died, insisting he only wanted the people to know the truth.
When you are not a democracy
If China was a democracy, these doctors would not have been intimidated. They would have been speaking more freely. The local press would have been interviewing them. They would have been demanding answers, rebutting government claims and botched up statistics. They would have gone to court. The media would have raised a hue and cry. The flow of such information would have caught the attention of Beijing, which would have cracked down on local officials trying to cover up an epidemic.
COVID-19 has done irreparable harm to the Chinese economy. From 6 per cent last year, GDP growth in China in 2020 could now be as low as 1-2 per cent, a 44-year low. The Chinese economy may actually have shrunk for the first time since 1976.
Even if it bounces back by the end of this year, there is little doubt the Chinese economy has been very badly hit because of the lack of democracy — because doctors in a big, touristy city are too afraid to call an infectious virus an infectious virus.
For the last two decades, people across the world have been wondering if democracy is actually a deterrent to economic progress, because just look at China. India’s messy democracy was supposed to be the reason behind its slow progress. China can just order people to give up land, but democratic pressures prevent that in India.
COVID-19 should settle this debate. It is lack of democracy in China that is responsible for the world suffering a pandemic, wiping trillions of dollars of wealth, rendering millions of people jobless. The death count from the virus is 82,000 and rising, the death count from the economic losses could be much worse. The 2008 financial crisis now looks like a dress rehearsal.
From WeChat to WhatsApp
India is the world’s largest democracy, and this fact has been a matter of pride for Indians when we think of China. We may not have their kind of supersonic economic rise, but we have freedom.
It is shocking, then, to see the Indian government intimidate doctors and control the information they put out even on private WhatsApp groups — uncannily similar to the Chinese government’s close watch of WeChat.
Just as the healthcare workers in China were punished into silence by being called rumour mongers, the Indian government is using the excuse of fake news. Armed with this excuse, the management wants to know contact details of WhatsApp group admins at Safdarjung Hospital, the main COVID-19 hospital in Delhi.
This is both about surveillance and intimidation, as the government’s real purpose is to silence doctors complaining about the lack of protective gear. Much like Wuhan, the Narendra Modi government wants to prevent criticism of the government to maintain political authority and legitimacy. The price will be paid by doctors and the public at large.
There have been many reports of doctors resigning from hospitals for want of protective gear, and such doctors are being threatened with disciplinary action. Meanwhile, the Modi government refuses to explain why it was allowing export of protective gear till as recently as 19 March.
In Indore, Madhya Pradesh, the administration has asked WhatsApp admins to change their group settings such that group members can not post anything, only group admins can.
While curbing fake news is necessary, this disproportionate and illegal clampdown on free speech has to be seen in light of the Indore administration’s failure to control Covid-19 spread in the city because the state government was busy making political changes. Sounds like that week of political conferencing in Wuhan.
Anything that doesn’t suit the government’s everything-under-control narrative potentially risks being labelled fake news. The Indian government has even tried to muzzle the mainstream media with the COVID-19 excuse and is reluctant to answer questions by the media in its press conferences, which are anyway addressed by the junior-most officers.
As the world’s largest democracy behaves like Chine in trying to repress information flow for political reasons, it may do well to look at what went wrong in Wuhan.
Views are personal.