Coronavirus: What Beijing Isn't Saying
Almost three thousand cases in 16 countries and over 80 deaths. (1) 16 cities under quarantine, for a total of approximately 56 million people cordoned off (slightly less than the total of the Italian population, to get an idea). In Wuhan there are complaints of empty supermarkets (2) retail prices that have tripled, face masks and disinfectants now impossible to find, overflowing hospitals (3), and insufficient beds and medical personnel. And while state TV celebrates the figure of Liang Wudong, the retired doctor called back to face the emergency, who was infected and died "on the field," social networks are full of videos of citizens waiting in line to be examined, people jammed into hospital wards, outbursts by hospital personnel who have been working non-stop for days (4) and who are forced to wear catheters so they won't even lose time going to the bathroom.
While the State media inform us that the city is building two hospitals at record speed, with 1,000 and 1,300 beds. The foundations must still be laid, but the promise is that they will be ready in about ten days. Video cameras show a massive work site where the workers, who are all wearing masks, give interviews that brim with patriotic pride for having given up the Chinese New Year festivities to help their fellow citizens. Yet if we browse through social networks, we find complaints from common people who have no way to get to the hospitals (5) or were too late in buying necessary products before the pharmacies exhausted their stock and public transport was suspended.
From the windows of their homes, the citizens take videos of a ghost city: very few people in the streets, empty stores, deserted avenues. An image is circulating of a gas station that has put up a sign: "no gas for cars with plates from Wuhan, for everyone else maximum 100 Yuan," a little less than 13 euros. Analysts and commentators are praising the speed and openness with which China is responding to the crisis, comparing it to the long months of silence that had preceded the announcement of SARS in 2003. But any reference made to that period is censured,(6) and this time as well, we don't know exactly how things are going.
The first news of viral pneumonia in Wuhan dates back to December 8, 2019 - according to the scientific journal Lancet, the first case was actually from December 1 (7) - but the authorities didn't announce it until the 31st of the month, and measures began to be taken only from the 20th of January, when President Xi Jing spoke publicly about the problem. In fact, it was only on January 26 that the mayor of the city under quarantine, Zhou Xianwang, while wearing a mask, announced that the situation is worse than anticipated and that "five million residents left Wuhan before the safety measures came into effect."(8)
The local newspaper Wuhan Wanbao, which has a circulation of 850,000 copies, put the story on the front page only after the words spoken by the president, while until a couple days before that, it had headlines on a banquet for 40,000 families with which the city had broken the record of serving the largest number of people during a single event, and on the city's preparations for the new year's celebrations.(9) Moreover, from January 7 to 17, the city hosted the Annual Congress of the highest municipal and provincial authorities, and everything had to go smoothly.
The first people who shared information on the virus on social networks were stopped by the police with the accusation of "spreading rumors."(10) Doctors were prohibited from speaking with their friends and relatives (11) and hospitals were given the goal of "no contagion between personnel." On January 10, the respiratory diseases expert chosen by the government, Wang Guangfa, told state television that the situation was "under control," but just eleven days later he was forced to admit he had contracted the virus during his brief inspection in Wuhan.(12) That same day, the Chinese learned of three fundamental facts: the virus is transmitted between humans, wearing protective masks is advisable, and 14 members of the hospital medical personnel were infected.(13) The next day, airplanes and trains to and from the city were cancelled. In this situation, it's no surprise that the population doesn't trust the government.
In fact, the cases are multiplying of people who family members have died from the lung infections without doctors conducting further checks. (14) And many believe that the spread of the coronavirus is much greater than what has been officially admitted so far. It is notable that this virus was identified in Hong Kong and in other East Asian countries even before the Beijing government recognized the existence of cases in the country outside of the region of Wuhan. Can a virus exist that affects areas further from its center of infection before closer areas? In China yes, this is why on social networks they have nicknamed it the "patriotic virus."