HONG KONG—Entire economies are stalling in distant parts of the world because of what’s going on in China. In a matter of weeks, the novel coronavirus first sighted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan less than two months ago, when it is believed to have made the leap from animal hosts to humans, has traveled to many continents. And the outbreak has changed the world in ways nobody had foreseen.
The vast, fast-spreading contagion is a classic example of what Nassim Taleb years ago dubbed a “black swan”: an event that is highly improbable and unpredicted, a surprise that reshapes history, and is then subject to “retrospective distortion,” when everyone says they should have seen it coming.
If there is a difference, it’s that the initial reaction of the Chinese Communist Party was to deny in real time that anything very important was happening at all until the evidence was quite literally overwhelming.
So the question has become, to put it colorfully, whether the black swan will vanquish the red dragon, or the other way around, and as the battle continues how great will the impact be on the rest of the globe.
As of Saturday in China, around 35 million people are living in cities that have been placed under mass quarantine due to the coronavirus outbreak. That’s almost as many people as in California, the most populous state in America.
For more than three weeks, people in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital, have been confined to their homes except for medical emergencies or quick supply runs. Police, drones, and zealous apparatchiks have been deployed around the country to maintain various levels of lockdowns.
The economy is slowing down, with a dramatic effect on global oil prices, manufacturing supply chains on the far side of the world, and, of course, questions about public health in the many countries that have seen confirmed cases of the sickness.
On Friday, the central government declared that all residents of Beijing returning from the Chinese New Year holidays endure a 14-day “self-quarantine or go to designated venues to quarantine.”
Things look dire, and it’s unclear when the viral outbreak will subside.
Time and time again during the crisis, people have seen that the Chinese Communist Party, with its readiness to mobilize an enormous security apparatus that fuses waves of manpower with cutting-edge technological accoutrements, still lacks reasonable plans to handle this critical, nationwide emergency.
While it’s hard to say what the actual toll on China’s population is so far—official numbers describing diagnoses and deaths don’t reflect conditions on the ground—what’s clear is the virus’ unexpected emergence and swift spread around the globe has changed how Chinese people express their views about their government.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has stated that officials need to hit economic growth targets for this year even though many businesses have ground to a halt. He expects them to make “adjustments” to minimize the virus’ impact on China's economic standing. State-owned enterprises are meant to have zero infections within their ranks.
It’s unclear how people are to avoid infection and sickness if they’re being ordered to head back to work.
Heads are rolling in Hubei. Top officials in the province have been sacked and replaced by Xi Jinping’s protégés. The message broadcast by the party is clear: Rogue officials are responsible for this mess. The central authorities have come to your rescue.
State-run media already are spinning legends about the medical workers who have been dispatched to Wuhan and the rest of Hubei, as well as well-meaning individuals who have poured their savings and supplies into donation funds. There is footage of nurses who worked until they collapsed circulating on Douyin, the domestic equivalent of the viral video app TikTok. Video of quarantined patients dancing in a convention center now used to warehouse patients portrays a rosy picture of sick people feeling better, recovering, having fun. Surely, then, things are looking up.
Yet the party’s propagandists can’t pave over the numbers that every household in China is following. As of Saturday morning, there were nearly 66,600 confirmed coronavirus diagnoses in China. More than 1,500 have been recorded as killed by the virus. These are the official statistics issued by China’s National Health Commission.
Doctors in Hubei and medical experts around the world believe the figures to be far higher. But by using the numbers for a rough calculation involving only the 9,600 cases where we know the outcome (or failure) of treatment, we can see that while 8,100 people have been reported as “recovered,” given that 1,500 are dead the coronavirus has a tremendously high kill rate of between 15 and 16 percent—nearly eightfold the 2 percent lethality cited by Chinese authorities.
On Friday, the National Health Commission said that more than 1,700 medical workers have been infected with the coronavirus. Six of them have died.
In a feeble attempt to calm the public, the state-run news agency Xinhua tole people this week, “Don't be terrified by the sharp increase in new cases.”
Officials are redoubling efforts to round up sick people in Hubei and house them in designated quarantine spaces. Suspected carriers are being placed in isolation in hotels and schools that have been outfitted for that purpose. Health officials working in Wuhan estimate that by Feb. 20 they will need 200,000 more beds for patients, including people who are suspected of carrying the coronavirus.
And in the southeastern corner of China, more than 1,000 kilometers from Wuhan, the city governments of Guangzhou and Shenzhen issued decrees to requisition private property, including housing and vehicles, that can be utilized to contain the outbreak. It’s the first time for local governments to activate an emergency law that was passed in 2007.
Starting on Sunday, all passengers of the Shenzhen subway will have to register their identities before rides so that the government can more easily track the movements of anyone who may be diagnosed subsequently as a host for the virus in the future. (The country’s vaunted, invasive facial recognition software has proved useless when everyone’s wearing protective face masks.)
Across China, officials have tapped state-run telecommunication service providers to keep track of citizens, particularly to see if people have visited Hubei. At various public locations, security personnel examine text messages that show where a phone—and presumably its owner—has been in the past 15 days.
Chinese enterprises of all sizes have been hit hard, sending ripples through global commerce. Many may fold in the coming weeks, sending millions of workers into unemployment.
This is the world’s second largest economy, representing roughly 18 percent of global GDP. The more it falters, the more impacts are felt everywhere, and that would be the case even if this plague were confined to China’s borders. But of course it is not.
So far, only four people have died outside of mainland China due to complications brought on by the coronavirus—in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, and, most recently, in France on Saturday. But its rapid spread has put many health authorities around the world on high alert.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has confirmed that some of its testing kits for the virus do not function properly. At the same time, new cases of infection are showing up in California and Texas, where evacuees from Wuhan are under medical observation.
Airlines based in the U.S., New Zealand, Vietnam, Singapore, Rwanda, Kenya, the United Kingdom, and other countries have suspended flights to mainland China, disrupting travel, commercial shipping, and even normal postal service.
At least 50 countries and territories have banned travelers from mainland China, in some cases including departures from any other country where there is a confirmed infection. Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has summoned foreign diplomats to make the case for their governments to reopen borders to Chinese nationals.
A cruise ship with more than 2,250 people on board wasn’t able to dock anywhere after being turned away from Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Guam, and the Philippines—and it didn't even have sick people on board. Finally, on Thursday, Cambodia allowed it to steer into a port.
Another cruise ship, the Diamond Princess floating off the shore of Yokohama, south of Tokyo, has been placed under a two-week quarantine. As of Saturday afternoonFriday morning, 285 of its passengers were diagnosed as carriers of the coronavirus.
Vietnam has quarantined more than 10,000 people 40 kilometers from its capital, Hanoi.
There’s good reason for nations outside of China to be worried. In Japan, none of the people who most recently tested positive for being infected have direct links to China, whether in their travel histories or interpersonal contacts. Ira Longini, a biostatistician and advisor to the World Health Organization, has warned that two-thirds of the world’s population could be infected. His calculation was based on each carrier infecting two to three people.
As the virus made its way overseas, Beijing’s geopolitical influence abroad was perhaps most noticeable in the World Health Organization’s hesitance to classify the outbreak formally as a “public health emergency of international concern.” Although the WHO eventually did make that declaration, its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, continues to heap praise upon CCP leader Xi Jinping, saying that he showed the right sort of “political commitment” and “political leadership” to weather a mass-scale medical crisis.
On Wednesday in Geneva, Tedros said, “We have met the president [Xi]. We have seen the level of knowledge he has on the outbreak. Don’t you appreciate that kind of leadership?” Tedros, aware of accusations he’s been soft on China, added, “We don’t say anything to please anyone.”
When meeting with the WHO head two weeks ago, Xi said he was “personally directing” and “personally planning” the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak.
Some call it the Wuhan virus. For a brief period, the hashtag #WuFlu was trending on Twitter. As infection numbers climbed in China, the WHO temporarily designated it as 2019-nCoV, then on Tuesday labeled it clinically as SARS-CoV-2, calling the disease it caused in humans COVID-19, or Corona Virus Disease 19. The idea, Tedros tweeted, was to “not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people.”
It wasn’t until Saturday that Beijing finally approved the WHO’s investigation of the virus on site in Wuhan.
In the recent past, in times of collective shock and trauma, people in China have taken to social media to vent their frustrations. Two high speed trains crashed and killed 40 people in 2011. More than 87,000 were killed during an earthquake that hit Sichuan province in 2008, including thousands of children in schools constructed using substandard materials and shoddy techniques. These two disasters were exacerbated because of the neglect embodied within the CCP. Though corrupt cadres were routed out in the aftermath, little has changed within the government’s structures. Preserving the party’s interests is the key objective and the safety of the people decidedly secondary.
The Chinese Communist Party has figured out how to govern 1.4 billion citizens—but only by instituting authoritarian, at times dystopian measures during peaceful times. When disaster strikes, the party’s bureaucratic machinery lacks fluidity and fails to adapt. It simply falls apart.
Many in China, trapped at home, cycle through three feelings—boredom, anxiety, rage. After the death of the young doctor Li Wenliang, who tried to raise the alarm about the virus before it spread beyond one marketplace, the nation mourned—and did so without top-down guidance.
The police in Wuhan had detained the doctor and designated him as a “rumormonger.” Then, after he died, the state appropriated his actions to repackage him as a national hero, a patriot. Party officials had set out to dye his legacy with the CCP’s colors and dogma.
But people wouldn’t buy it. They raised lights by their windows, shouting with fury into the night, recalling how the doctor was coerced into admitting that he broke the law and “disrupted social order.”
The collective grieving we saw captured a national spirit that wasn’t defined or controlled or controllable by the party’s ideologues. It was a moment that has kindled soul-searching in China: if the party can’t take care of Chinese citizens in a time of critical need, then the people need to organize on their own, for themselves, to assist each other, independent of the state.
SARS-CoV-2 is a global menace, but it required a host—an organizational, systematic deficiency—to make it so deadly so quickly. The way that the CCP’s cadres run China is unhealthy for the nation and the rest of the world—as we can see now only too clearly.