Zhu: What do we see in the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic?

Caroline Zhu, Staff Columnist

During an ongoing crisis, it is difficult to judge the efficacy of a proposed solution. China currently faces the unexpectedly rapid spread of a deadly strain of coronavirus in Wuhan, and its subsequent spread to other provinces, and, soon, other countries. Everyone has questions, and although the virus’ origin is only suspected as of now, it is clear the government’s response to the virus has been the source of widespread panic and confusion.

In 2003, China faced an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that killed over 700 people. It originated in Guangzhou and spreading quickly because many traveling individuals carrying the disease were unaware of it until it was too late. 

Although Wuhan has now been quarantined, the quarantine came weeks after the first cases were confirmed in December, and was initiated right before Lunar New Year, when travel is at its peak in China. The timing of the quarantine and the panic associated with it prompted people to try and escape the city before it shut down, which later caused public transportation to shut down throughout the city, pushing citizens to stay home.

Although it is difficult to say whether the actions of the Chinese government are truly in the people’s best interests, it is clear the quarantine caused massive panic, exponentially compounded by the Lunar New Year. Wuhan is a travel hub in China, and millions of people would have left the city to reunite with family and celebrate. By taking massive action after so much time had passed since cases of coronavirus had been confirmed, it seems the impending rush of Lunar New Year travellers pushed the Chinese government to issue a quarantine.  

I called my grandmother a few days before Lunar New Year, when the Wuhan outbreak seemed distant and contained. She and my grandfather live in Shanghai, provinces away from Wuhan, and were planning to travel to see family for Lunar New Year. I said that the news of the virus had spread to America, and asked if they planned to stay home, since it seemed serious. “Of course not,” she replied. “Your aunt has bought us face masks, we’ll be fine.” At the time, I laughed and felt sure that it would be fine, but then the first coronavirus case in Shanghai was confirmed. Unlikely as it is, there is still the irrational fear of infection that persists, even when I am miles away and well aware that my grandparents do not often leave their apartment. If I am afraid, I cannot imagine how this feels for those trapped in Wuhan, or those who have family unable to leave.

There is a separation of logic and emotion that is incredibly difficult to make in this situation. The quarantine is a clearly defined step in disease control by standards set out by the World Health Organization, but it only works efficiently when everyone within the quarantine cooperates and does not leave its boundaries. Instead, five million people fled from Wuhan in the last week alone, and the rest are packed into supermarkets preparing for the coming days when private transportation will also be restricted. 

Accompanying widespread fear, it is easy to place blame on individuals refusing to obey the quarantine. In truth, it is a repeated failing of the Communist Party of China; they do not understand their constituents. Citizens in Wuhan have brought to light questions of the nature of the quarantine, bringing up that the government offered little to no information, that treatment was almost impossible to get because of the limited supply of doctors and other medical staff. Currently, emergency lines equivalent to 911 in the U.S. are unavailable, and with gas stations closing and the personal transportation ban upcoming in Wuhan, questions are arising about whether or not individuals who contract the virus, or any other illness, will be able to seek medical attention.

The Wuhan government failed to close their borders soon enough. Had they chosen to close their borders earlier and provide accurate, clear information to the people, perhaps the spread of the virus could have been further contained. Mayor of Wuhan Zhou Xianwang has offered his resignation as recompense for the spread of the virus, but also pushed responsibility onto Beijing for their mishandling of the situation to provide the approval Wuhan needed to make the decision to enact the quarantine. The politics of the situation is reminiscent of the 2003 epidemic, where the question fell largely to blame, as though it would fix the situation. What we do know is that the death toll of the coronavirus has risen from 16 people last week—most of whom were elderly people with pre-existing conditions—to over 170 people this week. The people are panicked, and there is no structure present to assuage their fears.

Most recently, the city of Wuhan has started construction on a hospital to be built in six days to accommodate all of those who are infected. State media outlets reported on it, showing pictures of the finished hospital, only to be called out for their use of a stock photo rather than an actual representation of the hospital. This example seems to be the best representation of the Wuhan crisis: the spread of not only a disease, but of misinformation and panic, exacerbated by a strict government seeking any quick fixes to the situation. From an external perspective, perhaps it is time to consider removing judgment from the people, and placing it upon a system failing under pressure.

Caroline Zhu is a second-year computer science student. She is currently asleep and cannot take any messages.