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China’s battle with the Wuhan coronavirus is shackled by a toxic relationship with information

In the past several weeks, a biting joke has been widely shared on Chinese social media: The new coronavirus is patriotic, so it goes, because it infected only one of China’s 33 provinces and municipalities before venturing outside of the mainland.

Then, people this week woke up to official announcements of a shocking surge of confirmed new infections, and of the virus’s spread to more than a dozen provinces and municipalities. As of Thursday, there are more than 550 confirmed cases, 17 people have died and Wuhan, where the outbreak started, is on lockdown.

Beyond mainland China, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the US and Hong Kong have confirmed cases, and more countries could report cases as China’s biggest travel season gets underway: Chinese Lunar New Year.

People are panicking. When a new disease is discovered, it’s undeniably hard to identify and inform the public about it quickly. Yet China is making the problem harder to solve, even though it should have learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003, when the government admitted to underreporting cases in the initial stages. Nearly 800 people died in that epidemic, which saw desperate people emptying shops for Chinese herbal medicines and vinegar that would turn out to be ineffective.

That frenzy was driven by the lack of accurate information and rumors because of a vacuum in top-down communication. The idea of wei wen, or maintaining stability in China’s political system made “conceal as many as possible and keep it at the local level” a natural immediate response to a crisis like this. That approach to information might work on other kinds of issues, but not when it comes to a potential epidemic. Trying to control information in that case becomes a kind of shackle in the face of something that can progress and change swiftly beyond one’s control.

Of course, there is one thing that’s different than 17 years ago: WeChat. A tool connecting more than a billion users in China should be one the government can use to help keep the public up-to-date, and to debunk false information. Yet it too has become a hotbed for both rumors and information suppression amid China’s broader regime of online censorship honed over the past decade. Already, a focus of social media discussion about the current virus crisis has been on how hard it’s been to get correct information, and whether officials were slow to respond in the early stages, at least in Wuhan. While some international public health experts have commended China’s information sharing as superior to 2003 in the face of a quickly evolving situation, others have expressed doubt that the country is being as transparent as it should be.

This month, almost as soon as the first local municipal health statement was issued (link in Chinese) about a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, in central China, police detained eight local people for “spreading rumors about pneumonia.”

Jan 23, 2020


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