Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Gabriel Leung, chair professor of public health medicine at the faculty of medicine at the University of Hong Kong, speaks about the extent of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak in China at a news conference in Hong Kong Tuesday, Jan. 21.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

The late-night post to social media from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, in the epicentre of a viral outbreak, was a sign of transparency in a country where authorities routinely cover up damaging information in the name of preserving social order.

Fifteen medical workers had been infected by a new SARS-like coronavirus, the commission wrote shortly before midnight Monday, revealing the virus is capable of human-to-human transmission – and raising the stakes for authorities in China and abroad as they seek to prevent a pandemic.

On Tuesday, authorities took more dramatic measures, instituting health-inspection sites at numerous entrance and exit points to and from Wuhan, including random checks of drivers on highways. As of Wednesday morning, the number of deaths had risen to nine, and confirmed cases to 440. Cases have now been confirmed in 20 Chinese provinces and Hong Kong, according to a new online government real-time monitor.

The first North American case was confirmed on Tuesday in a Washington State man in his 30s who had returned from a trip to Wuhan Jan. 15. He is in isolation in a hospital north of Seattle, but his case is mild and he is expected to recover.

The United States is now rerouting all flights from Wuhan through five airports with enhanced public-health screening, which includes the ability to take the temperatures of passengers.

But perhaps the most remarkable developments have been the pleas for honest reporting from officials, including a published commentary from a powerful Communist Party organ, with the Wuhan virus providing an unusual opening to criticize past practices and demand greater respect for the interests of everyday Chinese people – a reflection of the democratizing influence of social media, even in a country with the world’s most sophisticated censorship regime.

Seventeen years ago, Chinese leaders used their control over information to conceal the true spread of SARS before it became a pandemic, killing almost 800 people.

But the genetically related Wuhan virus, also known as 2019-nCoV, is spreading in a very different China, and the more transparent response from officials – in recent days, at least – suggests that the ubiquity of social media has forced change upon a leadership that is grappling with its imperfect ability to shape the information people consume.

”Self-deception will only make the epidemic worse and turn a controllable natural disaster into a man-made disaster for which we will pay a huge price,” the powerful Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission wrote in a commentary published on its Sina Weibo account and republished by numerous state press outlets Tuesday. It took unusually direct aim at the SARS response, saying the concealment of information at the time “greatly hurt the government’s integrity and social stability.

“People are not living in a vacuum," the commission wrote. "They will not be kept in the dark forever. Depriving them of their right to know the truth will only give rumours a place to rage.

“Even more terrible than a viral infection is an infection of panic.”

But there are signs Chinese authorities are once again not fully disclosing information. Scholars at Imperial College London used epidemiological computer modelling to estimate that the number of infected people is many times the current official count. Authorities have issued deeply conflicting statements. Just 24 hours before others acknowledged human-to-human transmission of the virus, the head of the Wuhan Centers for Disease Prevention and Control said the risk of such transmission was low.

Yet there were also signs of the opposite: Authorities updated statistics on deaths and infections within hours Monday, with additional information released Tuesday – including an acknowledgment that officials are monitoring 922 people for signs of infection. China alerted the World Health Organization on Dec. 31 and made public the genetic profile of the virus, allowing other countries to develop fast identification tests.

All the activity did little to quell public skepticism.

“So the government finally admits that the virus is transmittable. Can’t believe it has taken us such a long time to get facts. Why is telling truth so difficult?” someone wrote on the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission’s post.

“For government officials, suppressing rumours and stopping their spread is much more important than curbing the virus. That’s the fact of things in China,” wrote another.

Panicked buyers emptied supplies of inexpensive anti-viral masks on Jingdong, one of China’s biggest online retailers. Fears hit stock markets, too, with airlines and travel companies retreating while drug makers rose on the assumption that China is hurtling into a health emergency.

A 28-year-old office worker in Wuhan described empty streets and bed shortages at hospitals. He said he was anxious because he had developed a cough. The Globe and Mail is not identifying him because he is worried he could be placed in isolation.

“The Chinese government has a long history of minimizing the seriousness and hiding facts around public safety,” said Zhang Lifan, a Chinese historian and Communist Party critic. And ”the public is fed up with dishonesty and lies.

“The only difference between the Wuhan virus and SARS is that this time it was people within China, within the infected zone, that first came out to tell the public what was going on,” Mr. Zhang said. “That’s a result of developments in internet and telecommunications.”

Chinese authorities maintain the ability to delete large volumes of online commentary they consider unacceptable. But the abundance of critical commentary Tuesday suggested a recognition by authorities that there are also risks in suppressing the conversation.

“They know what a tinder box they’re presiding over,” said Scott Savitt, an author and former China correspondent who remains a keen observer of the country. Although much smaller in scale, it reminded him of the more open environment ahead of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, amid “fear that an overly harsh response might cause more social instability.”

With reporting from Alexandra Li and Kelly Grant

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe