In China, censorship and lies have fuelled coronavirus fear

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It wasn’t just hospital staff who were working overtime during the Lunar New Year holiday in China. The police also had to step up. On January 24, a police officer flew to the city of Changsha, from where he was driven through blockades into quarantined Hubei province and then into Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. He had been sent to provide additional security at a local prison. Since the outbreak, prisoners have had televisions cut off and relatives’ visits banned. While the Chinese government is now showing cartoons of how to wear a mask on major TV channels, it doesn’t want prisoners to riot. The flow of information stops at the prison gate.

Officials in Wuhan thought they had everything under control. A month ago, they triumphantly declared ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who warned friends on WeChat of a Sars-like illness, was spreading rumours. Two days before Wuhan went into quarantine, provincial leaders watched dance troupes in the city’s auditorium. China has a reputation for being authoritarian, but local governments hold almost sole sovereignty over their jurisdiction. While officials likely reported the virus to higher-ups, they also seemingly underplayed its severity – likely scared of reprimands and being seen as incapable of handling a situation. Their default setting? Keep quiet and suppress.

So before the New Year, state media celebrated an annual tradition as usual, bringing 40,000 people together for a potluck banquet on the streets of Wuhan. All over China, companies held galas, not thinking the coronavirus was serious enough cause for cancelling. The most shared pictures of medical supplies were IVs and beds for employees to recover from over-indulging, rolled out by smartphone company Oppo.

In the days that followed, distressing accounts of medical shortages emerged on social media. Doctors have reported being too scared to eat, as once they take off their protective clothing, there may not be replacements to change into. There are videos of nurses breaking down after having to work without rest, as stopping could be considered disloyal. Citizen journalist Chen Qiushi reported corpses lying in Wuhan’s hospital corridors, neglected. He has since disappeared.

“Now, the state is doing a fairly good job scaring people,” says Zhang Qing, a Beijing-based student. “People are most angry about the initial few weeks.” In those early weeks, most of China’s elderly did not take precautions. Much of its older generation grew up in socialist production units and have been cared for by the government for their whole lives; they trust the word of the government far more than that of their own children.

Sam Gao, 24, who went back to his home province of Zhejiang for Lunar New Year, returned to find his parents pottering around mask-less. He ordered masks on JD.com immediately; soon after, they sold out. He urged his parents, who work within the local government, to wear masks, but they brushed his concerns off. “[It was only] after Wuhan was put under lockdown that my parents began to believe there was a virus,” Gao says. And it was only once cases were reported in the compound in which Gao’s parents lived and the state-controlled CCTV began to ramp up public health messaging, that they really began to take coronavirus seriously. On social messaging platforms WeChat and Weibo, young people have shared memes about how difficult it was to persuade their parents to take precautions.

The government’s suppression of information has also left room for rumours to spread. The censorship machine is focused on criticism of the state’s suppression of information, deleting posts dedicated to the death of Li Wenliang. Then there is the deluge of rumours: that other cities will close, that vegetable prices are shooting through the roof – leading to panic and hoarding, and also putting pressure on government resources. State media has been promoting a medicine called shuanghuanglian, said to help with the symptoms of the virus, which sold out; some doctors are calling it fake news. People are not only turning to other sources of information, but are overreacting to any pronouncement.

Wuhan was totally unprepared for the coronavirus. “Medical resources are tight all over the country,” says Xing Yaqian, who went to university in Wuhan. Back during her studies, she discovered she had a throat tumour. After three days in a hospital bed, recovering from having it removed, the doctor shooed Xing away to make rooms for others – she’d waited three weeks for the surgery. Many people are dying not because of the virus, but because there is not enough basic care. “If people had heard Li Wenliang’s words, fewer people would have been infected,” says Xing. Public health professionals didn’t realise the total scope of what was happening. “The separation between doctors and public health professionals really screwed people over,” says a Beijing-based public health expert, who requested anonymity.

Compounding the public health crisis is the general low level of trust in doctors in China. Many Chinese do not go to the hospital unless they really feel they need to; they feel like doctors are cheating them. For a long time, the Chinese healthcare system incentivised doctors to overprescribe and over-recommend tests. To increase legitimacy, the central government felt compelled to call upon Zhong Nanshan, the man who fought Sars, to head the health commission investigating the coronavirus outbreak.

The state is now desperate to declare victory over the coronavirus. Local governments are under great pressure to keep cases as close to zero as possible, and to have high numbers of patients leaving hospitals. Last week, investigative news outlet Southern Weekend reported that widely-used nucleic acid tests to determine whether patients carry the coronavirus resulted in false positives in some cases – in a hospital in Hangzhou, a patient did not test positive until the seventh time. Those cleared by hospitals as non-infectious could, in fact, be roaming around, putting others at risk. One of the most heartrending aspects of this virus is how it passes from family member to family member.

Since China’s central government in Beijing stepped in, it has completed some gargantuan tasks. The world has watched as it built two hospitals with over a thousand beds each, both in just over a week. It cordoned off Hubei province, population 58.5 million, wrenching out a central cog in its economy – many low-level workers are still with their families, sequestered from their jobs in other cities. Few could question China is pulling out all the stops now – but what if news had come before the New Year festivities, before people brought back the coronavirus to their loved ones? Those praising China for its no-holds barred response now should not forget the deaths and infections brought about by that initial, crucial delay. It didn’t have to be this way.

The author’s name has been withheld for their safety.

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