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Is China hiding how bad the coronavirus is?

When an authoritarian regime controls all media outlets and arrests anyone who talks outside the party line, truth is hard to discover

February 8, 2020

4:32 PM

8 February 2020

4:32 PM

The Chinese government would have the world believe that the coronavirus is under control and the risks of it spreading to the rest of us is minimal. But foreign governments and intelligence agencies believe that China has been lying about the extent of the epidemic and continues to deny the truth about the numbers of dead and infected.

Judging by leaked videos on social media that purpotedly show the dead lying untended in the street, bodies wrapped in sheets lying on benches and crematoriums working 24/7 with bodies unceremoniously stuffed into ovens with no burial rites, millions of Chinese people appear to agree with the foreign assessments.

The official story goes like this: when the new variant of the coronavirus first emerged early last month, the Chinese government moved swiftly to contain the outbreak by quarantining the city of Wuhan with a population of 11 million where the disease was first detected. Over the next three weeks, the quarantine expanded to include 15 other cities with a total population of around 56 million. 

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So far, the government admits to 723 deaths, including a 60-year-old American living in China, and around 34,000 being treated in hospital with the admitted numbers climbing rapidly. Schools are shut, flights and trains canceled and roads blocked as the government tries to control the spread of the virus.

The epidemic has now spread to 28 other countries involving 214 cases with more being reported daily. Although travel restrictions are being imposed globally on all people and aircraft coming from China, the actions may be too little, too late. One report suggests that so many flights had already left Wuhan before restrictions were in place that 128 new cities around the world may be infected.

The federal government is quarantining people flying from Wuhan at Travis Air Force Base in Sacramento, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and Eppley Airfield in Omaha. What exactly is to be done about indirect flights or those already in America who might be infected is being left to state governments with no common policy.

Even a superficial examination of the official Chinese numbers suggest they are minimizing a problem that seems — so far — to be uncontrollable. If 56 million people are in quarantine with only 723 deaths, the problem is minuscule and the government is seriously overreacting. For comparison, out of America’s population of 329 million, the Centers for Disease Control says that in the 2018-19 flu season 43 million people were infected, 647,000 hospitalized and 61,000 died. Yet, despite the heavy casualties, the US has never considered quarantining 4 percent of the population as China has now done.

Away from the official narrative, the reports being smuggled out of China paint a terrifying picture of a government losing control of the epidemic. Much has been made of the construction of a new hospital from scratch in 10 days but less has been discussed about how medical supplies have run out in many hospitals with the sick and dying lying untreated in corridors because of a chronic shortage of beds. 

An authoritarian regime is able to impose rigorous controls on the movement of people. For example, in areas under quarantine, only one member of a family is allowed out every two days to buy essential supplies. But food is now scarce and often unavailable altogether.

Inside China, reliable reporting free of government censorship is not possible. Already a number of commentators and journalists have been arrested for questioning the party line and any social media posts critical of the government are swiftly taken down. Even so, there is a vigorous social media conversation on outlets like the microblogging site Weibo but these all happen within the confines of the party line. Other sites, such as the news aggregator Toutiao, have fact checkers who try and dispel rumors but they, too, rely on the government for ‘truth’. 

Li Wenliang, the 34-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan, who first raised the alarm about the virus last December, has died of the infection according to reports in China. He was forced to retract his warning and said he had spread an unfounded rumor. Even his death has prompted an overreaction by the authorities who forced several newspapers to cut their online reports of his death after they had been published. His death resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of criticism of the government on social media.

The military has now been brought in to help enforce the restrictions but the army is seen as so corrupt and poorly trained that their arrival has been greeted by widespread derision. The military have been ordered to go door to door taking the temperature of all residents. Anyone suspected of having the virus is taken and placed in huge quarantine camps containing thousands of people. Already, there are not enough doctors and medicine to treat all the infected so these camps may well prove incubators for even more infection and death.

Nowhere is this ambivalence to the military’s involvement reflected more graphically than within China’s government and business community. In the past few weeks, international donors have offered billions in aid to help combat the spread of the virus. But, in dozens of instances, donors have been advised to keep their money until the virus is contained, which will be months from now. Outside of official government propaganda, there is a recognition that donor money would simply be wasted because of corruption in agencies within China and the inability of anyone to deliver much of anything to the infected areas, especially medicine and food.

If nobody seems to accept the official line of few deaths and low infection numbers, what is the true story? The short answer is that when an authoritarian regime controls all media outlets and arrests anyone who talks outside the party line, truth is hard to discover. The Japanese government, which has very good sources in China, has told other governments that it believes hundreds of thousands may have been infected and thousands may already be dead. 

Even if the real numbers of dead, dying and infected are unknown, there does seem to be general agreement that a global pandemic is likely. A virus like this one can die out naturally after the disease fails to adapt to humans. Or, it might be contained by treatment or quarantine but that seems to have failed so far. A third scenario that keeps all disease fighters up at night is that this is a true pandemic that only dies out after all likely people have either been infected and survived or been infected and died. 

Today, the best estimate for a viable treatment for coronavirus is at least a year away and all current assessments suggest that banning flights or quarantining travelers has proved ineffective in dealing with past viral outbreaks.

Even if the coronavirus can be contained, the damage to the Chinese government’s credibility inside the country and on the global stage will be long-lasting. From the start of the epidemic just four weeks ago, literally nobody outside of China has believed the official story and the propaganda becomes less believable as each day passes.

For the population of China itself, a whole network of unofficial social media and smuggled videos and reports has emerged to counter the official government line. This samizdat response, which has engaged tens of millions of people, has done much to undermine the credibility and control of China’s central government.


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