HONG KONG—A new virus is sweeping through eastern and central China. It gives people a fever, a dry cough, shortness of breath, and fluid in the lungs. So far, according to official statistics, six have died and nearly 300 have been confirmed to be infected, but estimates of infections run much higher, in the thousands. Medical professionals who were tending to patients have themselves fallen ill.
There are confirmed cases in Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea—and now the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed on Tuesday that it had identified a first case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the state of Washington. The United States and other nations and territories have been preparing response plans, even quarantines, for weeks. This in response to "growing indications that limited person-to-person spread is happening," said a statement from the CDC. "It’s unclear how easily this virus is spreading between people. ... This is a rapidly evolving situation."
So, nations and territories around the world are on alert, but things in China, the government wants you to believe, are just fine.
On Monday night, China’s top medical professionals recognized that this coronavirus is now transmitting from human to human. The statement was made days ahead of the Lunar New Year rush, when much of the country travels for an extended holiday, people jostling for space on packed trains, buses, boats, and planes. Some have already canceled their journeys, opting to remain in their cities of work and residence instead of returning home. But a massive temporary migration involving up to three billion trips is still expected to take place as we head toward the end of the week.
Already, many pharmacies have sold all their face masks that were in stock, but the Chinese government is eager to project the image that there is no brewing epidemic. Some train station and airport workers were told that they are not allowed to wear face masks to work, for fear that their precautions might spark panic among travelers. In Wuhan, where a meat and poultry market has been identified as ground zero for the viral outbreak, a massive banquet was organized with 40,000 families in attendance.
The coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan in mid-December, but body temperature screening equipment was not installed in the city’s airports and train stations until a month later.
Press coverage about the virus is tightly controlled in China, and information about it is stifled online. On popular Chinese social media platforms, posts by users whose relatives have died after suffering from pneumonia-like symptoms matching those of coronavirus patients were wiped, prompting outrage and accusations that the Chinese Communist Party is withholding information about how far the virus has spread.
Contrast that with precautions taken by entities outside of mainland China. Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, is distributing face masks, antiseptic wipes, and health forms for travelers from Wuhan. Korean Air has taken things a step further and placed hazmat suits on some of its planes; the airline is also disinfecting cabins of planes that fly to Wuhan.
Airports in East, South, and Southeast Asian countries have dispatched additional staff to screen passengers from China, checking for early symptoms of infection. The same goes for Sydney, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, all of which receive many flights from Asia every day. The World Health Organization recommends that any person who might have a respiratory illness should seek medical attention and share their travel history with their physician.
There is speculation that conditions in some of China’s markets are potent breeding grounds for deadly viruses. A variety of meats and living animals are sold in Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market, where the virus first infected a cluster of people, mostly stall operators. The game includes peacock, wolf pup, porcupine, fox, palm civet, as well as other creatures sourced from different corners of East and Southeast Asia.
This, and the general opaqueness of what’s going on north of the border, reminds people in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak of 2002 and 2003, when 800 people were killed after an animal virus—possibly one that was active in bats—infected humans in Guangdong and swept through the region, eventually crossing the Pacific to reach the United States and Canada.
At the time, the Chinese government suppressed domestic reports about SARS infections, and was slow to share information with the World Health Organization. A doctor who was treating SARS patients in Guangdong entered Hong Kong for a family gathering, and ended up carrying the virus into the city. Many guests at the hotel where he stayed became sick. He died in a local hospital. Now, 80 percent of SARS patients in Hong Kong are thought to have been infected because he was a “super-spreader”—a diseased host who infects an outsized number of people.
Habits formed in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic linger: people wear masks when they have the flu or a cold, elevator buttons and certain other surfaces are disinfected on a regular basis. The outbreak turned Hongkongers’ skepticism toward the Chinese government into severe distrust. If people’s health and well-being are disregarded in favor of preserving the illusion of normalcy, particularly when an illness could spread rapidly in extremely dense urban environments, how then could people in Hong Kong trust Beijing to ensure their safety and security?
On Monday, CCP leader Xi Jinping said public officials at all levels “should resolutely curb the spread of the epidemic.” Hu Xijin, editor in chief of party mouthpiece Global Times, has offered spin, suggesting that this outbreak “doesn’t look the same” as SARS.
Like some other members of the CCP, Hu is placing party allegiance before the safety of every other human being in the country—and abroad. It’s an attitude that tells the rest of the world even though memories of an outbreak are still fresh in people’s minds, little has changed in a bureaucracy whose goal of clinging to power overcomes basic decency.