Last Wednesday evening, top officials in the central Chinese city of Wuhan settled into their seats at an auditorium for a Chinese New Year gala — even as a new virus that originated in their city was spreading rapidly.
Dozens of actors, actresses and musicians performed, some despite having sniffles and sneezes, the Hubei Folk Song and Dance Ensemble said in a now-deleted social media post.
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The next morning, residents woke to news that officials had ordered the city sealed, its airport closed and its train and bus stations shut down. Thousands of people flooded Wuhan’s hospitals, which pleaded for donations of masks, disinfectant and medical supplies as overworked doctors and nurses grappled with the crowds.
It wasn’t long before simmering anger exploded online. Hundreds fumed at a report on the festivities on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, asking why officials were enjoying a gala show instead of dealing with the epidemic or shortages of supplies.
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As China institutes one of the largest quarantines in modern history, locking down more than 50 million people in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province, questions are swirling about the city and provincial governments’ sluggish initial response to an outbreak that has infected thousands of people and killed more than 100.
For two weeks, from January 5 to 16, the city reported virtually no new cases, while hundreds of officials gathered in Wuhan, the provincial capital, for Hubei’s two biggest political meetings of the year. It was only after a medical team dispatched by the National Health Commission went to investigate on January 19 that the severity of the situation became public.
“Wuhan must immediately change its chief!” Zhang Oufa, a journalist with the government-run Hubei Daily newspaper, thundered in a Weibo post. “Under these abnormal, grave circumstances that keep getting worse by the day, Wuhan’s current leader just doesn’t have what it takes to lead!”
His comments were swiftly removed. The paper rushed out an apology, saying it was deeply sorry for “disrupting ongoing work on epidemic prevention” and “causing difficulties for leaders at various levels.”
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Zhang has continued to post thinly veiled criticisms of city officials, and leading business magazine Caixin has published stories from the front lines, interviewing exhausted doctors and nurses and reporting long waits and supply shortages.
The fact that these reports are getting through China’s censors is likely a sign of the central leadership’s displeasure.
“Wuhan authorities clearly downplayed or made efforts to hide the situation for an extended period of time,” said Dali Yang, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Chicago. “It turned out to be one of the worst decisions that they’ll regret all their lives.”
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Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, defended his actions in an unusually tough interview with state broadcaster CCTV on Monday, offering to step down over his decision to close the city — not because of any delays in reporting the epidemic. He said the city government was slow to disclose information about the virus due to national regulations.
“As a local government official, I could disclose information only after being authorised,” Zhou said. “A lot of people didn’t understand this.”
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Phone calls to the Wuhan party committee publicity department rang unanswered Monday and Tuesday, and their fax machines were turned off.
Chinese health officials informed the World Health Organisation about the new virus on Deccember 31. By January 8, it had been identified as a new coronavirus, a large family that causes the common cold and more serious illnesses including Sars, which also began in China. By January 12, Chinese scientists had sequenced the virus’ genetic makeup and shared it with WHO, drawing praise for their transparency and swift action.
In contrast, the Wuhan heath commission reported no new cases from January 5 to 10 and again from January 12 to 16. China’s Lunar New Year rush - the world’s largest annual human migration - began to get underway, with millions of people passing through Wuhan, a major transit hub.
A recently submitted complaint to the National Health Commission alleged that during this period, officials with the Wuhan health commission told doctors they were not allowed to report about the new virus, letting patients wander around freely instead of being isolated.
“We have countless medical workers who, because they weren’t aware of the situation, got cut down at the front lines,” said the complaint, whose author said they were a Wuhan doctor. “Because of the coverup of the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission and other leaders, they made unnecessary sacrifices!“
A volunteer coordinating donations to hospitals in Wuhan heard from doctors and nurses that in early January, it became apparent that many medical workers treating patients were falling ill themselves. They raised the alarm, but with little effect.
The sluggish response meant that for weeks, medical staff made do without proper protection, the volunteer said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution against the doctors and nurses. Even now, some medical staff are using garbage bags and cut-up water bottles as makeshift gowns and masks, the volunteer said.
“When we first discovered it could be transmitted between people, our hospital head, chairman, medical affairs department, they sat and made endless calls to the city government, the health commission,” one nurse, who fell ill and was put in isolation, wrote in messages shared by the volunteer. “They said we still can’t wear protective clothing, because it might stir up panic.”
Not hot potatoes here
Not all the blame can be placed on local officials, health and governance experts say. The broader issue is that local officials can be punished for reporting bad news to higher officials. The Chinese government’s rigidity, and a lack of transparency and accountability to the general public means problems like the virus epidemic can fester hidden away until it is too late.
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“There’s a tendency in terms of the Chinese bureaucratic accountability system to view a governance failure as the fault of a particular government official or group of officials, as opposed to a symptom of a broader governance challenge,” says John Yasuda, an Indiana University professor studying politics and regulatory failures in China. “Officials are likely to be a bit more hesitant to report simply because they don’t want to be caught with the hot potato.”
As the National Health Commission team came to Wuhan to investigate on January 19, tens of thousands of people tucked into a mass banquet of 13,986 dishes contributed from neighbourhood families. Pictures in state media showed nobody wearing masks while they shared rice cakes, fish, and other Chinese New Year delicacies.
Even after the head of the team announced that the virus could spread from person to person, and the number of reported cases began soaring, crowds of pedestrians thronged the streets of Wuhan early last week.
“I heard about it earlier this month, but I didn’t pay much attention,” said Helen Cao on January 21, pausing after an afternoon shopping on Wuhan’s busiest pedestrian street. “It should be fine. All the sick people are in hospitals, it’s not really an emergency.”
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Growing anxiety over the virus is evoking memories of the ruling Communist Party’s slow response to the 2002 emergence of Sars, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Even after Sars had spread globally, China tried to hide the number of cases by parking patients in hotels and obscure hospital wings, and driving them around in ambulances to avoid detection by World Health Organisation experts.
This time, action from the central government has been swifter. There are signs the central government in Beijing may act against city and provincial-level officials it deems responsible for the crisis.
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China’s cabinet, the State Council, issued a public call Friday for whistleblowers, opening up channels for people to submit complaints about cover-ups or delays in reporting cases. It promised cases would be “dealt with seriously.“
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for the study of global health at the Council of Foreign Relations, believes authorities are being much more responsive, now that the central government has acted. But Huang says the fact that the disease had been allowed to fester for so long shows deep-rooted problems with increasingly strict political controls under President Xi Jinping.
“The atmosphere is such now, we see rapid centralisation of political power,” Huang said “That created a political atmosphere where people are afraid to speak up… They are very reluctant to share any useful information, and that is actually becoming a challenge.”