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China’s blunders in Wuhan should settle the debate about democracy and economic progress

The virus exploded from Wuhan to the world because the Chinese form of government abhors transparency. What they need is democracy — and India should learn this lesson.

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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.

Also read: The big coronavirus cover-up: Fighting truth and coronavirus, the China way

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.

Also read: Modi’s India isn’t Mao’s China. Silly forecasts assume we’ll let corona kill millions of us

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.

Also read: How doctors, health workers are losing the fight against Covid-19 pandemic

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.

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  1. For the present catastrophic conditions all should take responsibility for ignoring the advice given by ” Microbiology Research conducted on viruses for the desease during the period 1995 to 2005 world-wide especially Chinese eating habits for the out breaking of pendamics.” It also cautioned the world body with the research outcome. If one goes through the publication of October 2007 journal of the research publication the severity will get astonished. To some extent President Obama understood the problem and cautioned the country men. Present governments running after supremacy in the name of wars or ignoring the scientific research advises . The name Corona already there in 2007 itself.

  2. Why have people stopped being rational and keep giving prejudiced opinions on the article written here. These people who write are trying to open our eyes to facts and helping to educate us to stand by the right principles. A democracy with all its flaws is much more desirable than having a country controlled by dictators according to their whims and fancies. Which is quite the correct view if you believe in democracy. If you say you believe in democracy then you stand for its principles no matter who the individuals involved in the functioning of the govt. are. Let us not get bigoted but learn to be rational.

  3. I am one of the proponents of democracy. However if the writer’s argument is to be taken up – most of the world’s democracies had a much longer head start than China. Infact most of these democracies are economically well developed including US and Western Europe. Why could these democracies not protect their citizens?

  4. ALL OF US have known this for quite sometime. Only the likes of Sitaram Yechury, Brinda Karat, Pinarayi Vijayan, etc still remain, like Ostriches, with their heads buried in the sand.

  5. Who is this writer? Usually, you give a brief account of who the writer is. If China is undemocratice, he lectures India about democracy. As a viewer, I know both social media and TV channels have dispensed enough misleading information and sensationalised the matter of COVID 19. Only lately, national TV channels are acting responsibly. Watch regional TV channels, if the writer can understand Kannada or Tamil. He will know.

  6. A little difficult to generalise. A headstrong leader can cause harm, irrespective of the political system he operates in. 2. The Jerusalem Post carries an item, US intelligence report warned of coronavirus in November – ABC. Analysts concluded it could be cataclysmic event. 3. The US military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence detailed concerns after analysing intercepted digital data and satellite imagery. Around Thanksgiving, alarms were raised that China’s leadership knew the outbreak had spiralled out of control, keeping the information from health agencies and foreign governments. 4. The November presidential election is unimportant. This could have been President Trump’s second term. Or even the period between election and inauguration. In the world’s most important, vibrant democracy, complete with a fiercely independent media, consider if President Trump’s response has been any superior to President Xi’s.

    • Yes but Trump gets kicked out if voters are unhappy with his performance. The Chinese have no such option. That’s why democracy wins over any other system. The best arguments against autocracy are the famines and flu pandemic that India had under the Brits. Not to forget the famines that the Chinese had under Mao.

      • Nonsense, India don’t need democracy but one party system and Chinese have handled this well, the problem is in their habit of eating wild animals not one party system. Chinese factories are open just see, this is possible only due to one party authoritarian system state of technocrats.

  7. It is unfortunate that as a democracy, we cannot muzzle and are forced to tolerate the rants of a rabble rouser like Shivam Vij. If ever press freedom , even for disseminating fake news has to be cited, your columns are a good example.

  8. I remember a story from my young days. A boy was asked to write about a particular tree. He didn’t know anything about the tree. So he wrote elaborately about the cow in his house and in the last line he wrote, “the cow was tied to this tree”.

    Similarly, whatever Shivam writes on, eventually he will come back to his sweetheart Modi. Headline is about China. But ending is “Modi is behaving like China”.

    Same boy. Same story.

  9. “Shoe I am ” considers a PM who was never democratically elected running a country as a democracy . And a NAC run by a bunch of people again never elected , whose chairman and children and son in law were able to do anything they wanted. A cabinet mired in corruption . Thousands of crores given to corrupt businessman through phone banking a democracy. No doubt he feels he lost his importance under present dispensation. INDIA a country who industries were destroyed by cheap imports from China.

  10. I doubt whether all this writing by Shivam Vij is going to change anything. Majority of Indians believe all our problems are due to Muslims/Pakistan, J Nehru/ R Gandhi and that the solution for all this is Muslim/Pakistan bashing, blaming Nehru and Congress and unquestioning acceptance of the current regime’s actions.

    • And they are right. And this Shivam Vij is idiot of highest lev, Chinese don’t need democracy they need to stop eating wild animals. Chinese one party system is much butter. And yes Arabic religion is our enemy.

  11. Do you think MoNa government care about lives of people? Nope. They don’t. So why would they care about democracy?

  12. Democracy protects poor from extinction, allows intellectuals their space to an extent but is looked upon with disdain by upper middle class & rich. Print readers mostly belong to upper middle class.

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