Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
One week after it decided not to declare the coronavirus epidemic in China a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organization’s emergency committee reversed course on Jan. 30. The impetus: The disease had spread to 18 countries, with human-to-human transmission occurring in three of them.
But the committee also praised China for its “commitment to transparency” – even though government control of information continued to be a burning issue within China. Of the 83 cases in the 18 countries, only seven had “no history of travel in China.” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who had just returned from Beijing, praised China for setting “a new standard” for outbreak response with its massive lockdowns.
Yet oddly, despite the role that travel in China evidently played in the spreading of the virus, the committee said that it “does not recommend any travel or trade restriction based on current information available.”
Despite the WHO’s stance, a number of countries – the United States, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam – moved to restrict travel to and from China anyway. The Philippines, where the first coronavirus death outside China occurred, banned travellers from Hong Kong and Macau as well as the mainland.
And even as the WHO praised Chinese actions, criticism within China itself has grown over how information on the health crisis had been handled at both the local and national levels – and from unusual, high-profile sources.
Significantly, one of the critics was the Supreme People’s Court. On Jan. 28, an article on the court’s official WeChat account commented on the detention by Wuhan police in early January of eight people for “spreading rumours” online. It turned out that all eight were doctors, and they were discussing the mysterious pneumonia-like disease quietly spreading in the city.
One doctor, an ophthalmologist named Li Wenliang, told members of a medical-school alumni WeChat group on Dec. 30 that there were seven cases of SARS in Wuhan’s central hospital, where he worked. He was then summoned by the police and reprimanded for spreading rumors that had “severely disturbed the social order.”
The court, however, rebuked that decision. While Dr. Li was wrong about the diagnosis of SARS, said the article, the patients did have a disease that was similar, and he had not manufactured fake news for any ulterior purpose. If people had listened to him and worn masks and avoided the wildlife market, China might be in a better position now to deal with the virus, it said.
Meanwhile, the Wuhan government has been severely criticized for withholding information or for providing misinformation. Its mayor, Zhou Xianwang, readily told China’s national broadcaster CCTV that “everyone was dissatisfied with the way we disclosed information.”
But Mr. Zhou also defended his government by explaining that China has a law on the handling of contagious diseases, and that “information may be disclosed only as permitted according to that law.”
“As a local government,” the mayor said in an interview no doubt watched with keen interest by senior officials in Beijing, “we may disclose information only after we are given permission to do so. That is something that many people do not understand.”
Indeed, article 38 of the Communist Party’s “Regulations on requesting instruction and reporting on major matters” says that "when an infectious disease breaks out and prevails, the health administration department under the State Council shall be responsible for announcing to the public information on the epidemic situation of the infectious disease, and may authorize the health administration departments under the people’s governments of provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities directly under the Central Government to announce to the public information on the epidemic situation of the infectious disease in their own administrative areas.”
In effect, Mr. Zhou claimed that it was not the city but the central government that had left its citizens in the dark about the health threat in their midst. So far, the Chinese government has not responded to the mayor’s allegation.
In 2003, officials in both Guangdong and Beijing lied about the gravity of the situation around SARS. Now, the Chinese government needs to explain – to its own people and to the world – just how the system is supposed to work in a health crisis and why, once again, it did not work the way it should have.
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