A tale of outbreaks, both in China

Unlike the SARS crisis, Beijing has handled the coronavirus epidemic better; but its secretive attitude still causes concern

Updated - February 17, 2020 02:15 pm IST

Published - February 15, 2020 12:02 am IST

The title of the third chapter of my China memoir, Smoke and Mirrors , was ‘Coronavirus’. This was not an act of precognition, but merely an account of having lived in Beijing during the 2003 SARS epidemic, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which was also caused by a coronavirus.

There are obvious parallels between the epidemics of 2002-2003 and 2019-2020. Both began in winter and featured cover-ups and whistle-blowers. The origins of both were traced to China’s unregulated wet markets and the sale of wildlife. Both resulted in quarantines, empty streets and considerable panic. They featured the jaw-dropping feats of entire hospitals being constructed within a few days’ time. And both demonstrated the pros and cons of China’s authoritarian political system: the ability to implement drastic measures to contain a crisis, but only after the unnecessary escalation of the crisis resulting from a repressive culture of censorship.

But there are also differences. SARS was far deadlier, with a mortality rate of about 10%. The mortality rate for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is yet to be established, but appears to be about 2%. However, it is much more infectious. More than 1,300 people have died from the new virus, a number that is already greater than SARS’ final death toll of 774. It took eight months for SARS to spread to more than 8,000 people. The COVID-19 has infected over 63,000 people in about six weeks.

Coronavirus outbreak: the view from China | In Focus podcast

More openness this time

There are also differences in the government’s handling of the epidemics. With SARS, the cover up went on for far longer than it did in the present instance. Although the SARS virus first began appearing in November 2002, China’s then Heath Minister, Zhang Wenkang, gave a televised press conference as late as April 3, 2003, assuring the world that Beijing had only a handful of infections. Then suddenly on April 20, it was announced that the capital in fact had 339 confirmed cases, 10 times more than the 37 infections made public until then. Three days later, on April 23, the official number of cases in Beijing was doubled, to 693.

With regard to the current epidemic, the first instances of COVID-19 appeared in early December. By the end of the month, China had already alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to several cases of A SARS-like pneumonia in the city of Wuhan. By the second week of January, China had genetically sequenced the virus and shared it with WHO. On January 23, Wuhan suspended all public transportation; all outbound trains and flights were halted. In the days that followed, travel restrictions were applied to neighbouring cities as well, eventually affecting well over 50 million people. Despite the inconvenience and the huge economic costs, China’s New Year holiday period was extended. Factories lay idle while people were urged to voluntarily quarantine themselves at home.

How other nations reacted

But despite these almost-draconian measures and the improved speed with which the Chinese authorities have responded to the ongoing epidemic, the global response has been more fearful and arguably more xenophobic than during SARS. The restrictions on travel to and from China are more punitive, even as there is a resurgence of racist tropes portraying Chinese food habits and other customs as unsafe and unsavoury.

The U.S. (with some exceptions) and Australia have banned entry to all foreign nationals who have been to China in recent weeks. Other countries, including India, Malaysia, Russia, Vietnam and Italy, have temporarily stopped issuing certain classes of visas to travellers from Hubei Province, where Wuhan is situated, or China altogether. A large number of airlines have suspended their China operations. Meanwhile there have been increasing reports of restaurants, hotels and shops in countries, ranging from Japan to Vietnam turning away Chinese customers.

What accounts for this larger, arguably “excessive” reaction? Social media certainly plays into it. SARS occurred in the pre-Facebook/WhatsApp/Twitter era, although text messaging was already well established then. Also, far greater numbers of Chinese are travelling abroad today.

There are certainly genuine concerns about public and personal health, but these have meshed with the discomfiture that many around the world feel towards China, a country that has exponentially grown in economic and military heft, even as other, traditionally ascendant, nations have lost some of their former geopolitical sheen. The widespread mistrust of China’s political system and anxieties about its geostrategic intentions are mingling with an ugly schadenfreude as China is exposed to censure. It is perhaps unavoidable. China’s new status as a major world power means that its handling of crises will inevitably be subject to global scrutiny.

And although compared to SARS, this handling has shown improvements, it nonetheless throws the deficiencies, even fragility, of China’s political system, into sharp relief. The severity and extent of the disease in Wuhan was underestimated for weeks. Information was not adequately shared. Worse, those like Dr. Li Wenliang (the whistle-blower who subsequently contracted the virus and died) who tried to voice their concerns were muzzled by the police. The egregious consequence of the weeks-long official silence was that it facilitated the movement of some five million people in the days before Wuhan was quarantined, enabling the spread of the virus all over the country and overseas.

In some way, it would seem that the more things have changed in China, the more they have remained the same. The larger context of the Chinese political system, in particular its overly controlling attitude towards information, has proved persistent. Local government incompetence is hardly confined to China, but in less restrictive societies, whistle-blowers such as Dr. Li would likely have found the means to get their message out. Under China’s President Xi Jinping, state control over the media has only deepened, which, together with his unabated emphasis on maintaining social order, means China remains vulnerable to crises despite surface strength.

Pallavi Aiyar is a former Beijing correspondent of The Hindu

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