NEW DELHI: With almost all parts of the world, except perhaps Antarctica, now reporting the spread of the coronavirus, disrupting the global economy and threatening the national security of several nations, it is essential to trace the origins of the crisis and flag the criminal negligence of the Chinese state in allowing the outbreak of the pandemic.
It is clear that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus—calling it the Chinese virus would be more appropriate—began in China in December 2019. The Chinese authorities say it most likely originated at Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market. From all available accounts, the first documented case with the symptoms was detected on December 7, 2019. However, China informed the World Health Organization (WHO) about patients inflicted with a mysterious pneumonia only on December 31. After the first 41 laboratory-confirmed cases were identified on January 2, 2020, officials announced no new cases for the next 16 days, then reported 17 additional lab-confirmed cases on January 18.
Meanwhile on January 11, Chinese state media reported the first known death caused by the virus. Despite these developments, a grand feast was organised in Wuhan’s Baibuting district on January 18 wherein the organizers attempted to break a world record for the largest number of dishes served. Some 40,000 families were reported to have attended the grand banquet.
The Baibuting banquet now stands as a symbol of China’s mishandling of the viral outbreak. Also, in the intervening period between January 2 and 18, Wuhan held its 14th People’s Congress and 13th committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative conference. It underscored the fact that despite overwhelming evidence which pointed to the increasing number of infections on account of human-to-human transmission, the authorities in Wuhan did not warn people or the provincial authorities in Hubei about the building catastrophe. In fact, on January 14 the WHO, on its official Twitter account, cited investigations by Chinese authorities that no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission had been found. It was only on January 20 that China’s National Health Commission acknowledged the evidence of human-to-human transmission.
The lack of action by the Chinese authorities came despite the fact that on December 30, Dr Li Wengliang, an ophthalmologist, now identified as one of the earliest whistle-blowers of the brewing health crisis, informed fellow doctors in an online chat group of seven new pneumonia cases caused by a SARS-like virus. But Wuhan medical authorities forbade the doctors from making public announcements and ordered them to report cases internally. On January 1, the Wuhan Public Security Bureau summoned eight people including Dr Li for “posting and spreading rumours’’ about Wuhan hospitals receiving SARS-like cases. They were reprimanded and released only after tendering a written apology. The WHO declared the outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30.
When the mayor of Wuhan was asked about the initial mishandling, he said he was not authorised to make the news of the outbreak public. The initial mishandling underscored how heavily the top down culture of decision-making that prioritises political stability over all else, probably allowed the virus to spread farther and faster. The initial mishandling of the situation invited widespread criticism. It also meant that many Chinese nationals from the Wuhan and Hubei province travelled to various destinations abroad for their annual holidays in January and early February, helping, even if unwittingly, to spread the virus all over the globe.
According to the New York Times, over 7 million people travelled out of Wuhan in January 2020. Many went to different parts of China, but thousands of them travelled abroad. Bangkok received 15,000 Chinese visitors from Wuhan, according to NYT. Another 2,200 went to Sydney and about 1,000 to New York. Researchers say nearly 85 per cent of these infected visitors went undetected but they were contagious nevertheless.
Meanwhile, in a perceptible attempt to distance the central leadership from the criticism, a speech of President Xi Jinping, given on the third of February, was published on the website of the Qiushi Journal, a Chinese Communist party publication. In the speech, President Xi mentioned that he had continuously given verbal and written instructions in the fight against the outbreak since January 7. However, it is important to note that the state media reports of that day did not include any remarks from President Xi on the virus.
This attempt at pushing a new account of events is considered to be an afterthought, to put the blame on the local leadership for poor implementation of the directives of the central leadership and to negate the criticism of President Xi’s absence from public view as the outbreak worsened.
Another point to note: While addressing the Chinese lunar new year reception held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 23rd, President Xi made no reference to the developing situation in Wuhan and Hubei even as total lockdown was imposed in Wuhan on the same day. This approach has been attributed to the reluctance of the central leadership to recognise the looming threat of the outbreak even when a lockdown had been ordered.
There was also an outpouring of grievances on social media and calls for freedom of expression once it came to light that Dr Li, the whistle blower who was reprimanded by the local police in Wuhan, had himself been infected by the virus and eventually died on February 7.
In order to stem the transmission of the virus, especially after human-to-human transmission was confirmed, China imposed unprecedented lockdown measures in Wuhan and all cities of the Hubei province. Vehicles were not allowed on the roads and only one family member was allowed to venture out of the home to collect supplies from designated volunteers. The entire city of Wuhan was virtually locked down from 10:00 am local time from January 23rd which continued for more than a month. Within days, the lockdown had expanded to cover several other cities comprising approximately 60,000,000 people.
The lockdowns extended beyond public spaces and entailed social controls on the private movement of residents. They varied in degrees of strictness from checkpoints at building entrances to hard limits on going outside. In Hubei and especially in all its cities, at the apartment complexes, security guards were deployed to regulate and essentially restrict the entry and exit of the people. In Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic, armies of informers were deployed to ensure citizens complied with the lockdown and volunteers went door to door checking residents’ temperatures. Those found to have fevers were sent to quarantine centres. The government leveraged its mass surveillance systems and technology to restrict people’s movements. Mobile applications were utilised to give people a colour coded health rating based on a person’s health condition and travel history, to control movement of the people.
The situation was serious enough for the standing committee of the National People’s Congress postpone the 3rd annual session of the 13th NPC which was scheduled to be held in the first week of March. Apparently, this was the first time since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s that the annual session of the NPC was postponed. It was to allow local leaders to concentrate on continued efforts at curbing the spread of the virus.
The entire sequence of events since early December 2019 clearly point to deliberate negligence, indifference and hubris on part of the Chinese authorities, putting the entire world at risk. It’s time the ruling CCP and its top leadership is held accountable for what can easily be termed as a crime against humanity, given the spread and effect of the Chinese virus across the globe.
(Coming Up: The Chinese propaganda in overdrive)