Bird flu, Sars, China coronavirus. Is history repeating itself?
- Hongkongers could be forgiven any déjà vu over the latest outbreak of a deadly virus originating in mainland China
- A common thread appears to link each of these disasters: a Chinese penchant for secrecy that makes things worse.
Sometimes history seems to unspool in a continuous playback loop. That is the feeling from watching Hongkongers donning face masks, dousing hands with sanitiser and once again bracing for the possibility of a deadly new virus outbreak originating in mainland China spreading here.
Chinese authorities’ delayed response, the secrecy breeding mistrust, the lack of full transparency and efforts to control the narrative by downplaying the seriousness – it all rings sadly familiar.
That was certainly the case in late 1997, just after China’s assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, when the territory was hit by an outbreak of the H5N1 virus known as “bird flu”. Well into the outbreak, with people sick and some dying, Hong Kong officials were reluctant to finger China as the source, even though 80 per cent of the territory’s poultry came from the mainland. Hong Kong ordered the slaughter of more than 1.3 million chickens, ducks, pigeons and other birds, but officials were still nonsensically hesitant to point to China as the culprit behind the contagion out of fear of contradicting Beijing which insisted, wrongly, that all its chickens were healthy.
The government did not warn the public for months, allowing people carrying the virus to migrate freely, and did not alert the WHO until February 2003. China finally began concerted action in the summer of 2003, and SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome – was quickly brought under control. But the inadequate reporting and delayed response led to a public health trust deficit that persists today.
Does this signal that Beijing is opting for a new policy of transparency this time?
Even the quarantine smacks of too little, too late. It seems ill-planned, and likely to be largely ineffective. First there is the near impracticality of sealing off a city of 11 million people, larger than the populations of Hong Kong or New York City. The move was taken the day before the New Year’s Eve travel period, when many people would have already started on their journeys. Planes, trains and buses were halted, but it was unclear what provisions would be made for private cars. Perhaps most inexplicably, the ban was announced to take effect at 10am on a Thursday, creating an early-morning crush of travellers trying to get out ahead of the quarantine.
Then there’s the matter of whether such a closure of Wuhan could even be effective. Some public health experts I spoke with said there seems to have been no provision made for getting food, fuel and critical supplies like medicine into the city, or how investigators, decision makers or even journalists would enter – and whether they would then be permitted to leave. And while the closure might temporarily tamp down the virus’s geographical spread – apart from those residents who have already left – it could also have the unintended effect of turning Wuhan into an incubator of infection.
Both the Hong Kong and Chinese central governments are facing crises of confidence.
For the Chinese Communist Party, which just celebrated 70 years in power, its legitimacy derives not from any election but from its performance. China’s leaders base their right to rule on how effectively they have managed what is soon to be the world’s largest economy.
One may have thought China’s leaders had learned from their errors handling SARS. Unfortunately, history teaches us otherwise, and seems to be repeating itself again.
Professor Keith B. Richburg, a former Washington Post correspondent, is Director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre