Coronavirus outbreak: What went wrong in the early days

This was the scene on the evening of January 24th in China. The Chinese New Year is celebrated by an astonishing television spectacular featuring thousands of singers and dancers.

Promoting the accomplishments of the country and the Communist Party. But this was four days after news of the COVID-19 outbreak and so a section was added at the last-minute focusing on the unfolding epidemic in the city of Wuhan.

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TV presenters cheered on the brave healthcare workers confronting the deadly COVID-19 virus. All this was quite a marked departure from how the epidemic was treated weeks earlier when it was covered up by the Chinese authorities.

Now, infectious disease experts around the world are focusing on the lessons of the COVID-19 epidemic.

1. Epidemics are more likely to grow in authoritarian societies

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Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader China has had since Mao Zedong. The entire Chinese bureaucracy and security apparatus seeks to please him and reinforce his highest announced priority: Stability.

Pulitzer prize-winning author Laurie Garrett specializes in public health and infectious diseases. In China, she saw the SARS epidemic covered up by the Communist Party.

According to Garret,

So, it’s created a culture inside China of cover-up, lying, hiding the truth. Very much like what I experienced in the old Soviet Union. Where everybody wants to please the higher-ups.

Garrett was working in China through that outbreak 17 years ago when the government was notoriously dishonest about every aspect of it. She saw the same thing happening this time after the outbreak was first acknowledged on December 31st.

According to Garret,

They announced officially from the city government, “There seems to be a bit of a problem.” “Don’t worry about it.” “We have it well under control.” “It has nothing whatsoever to do with SARS.” “Everybody remain calm.”

The People’s Daily official newspaper ignored the announced outbreak on January 1st. In fact, there was no mention of the epidemic for 20 consecutive days through January 20th. Dr. Yanzhong Huang is an infectious disease expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

According to Huang,

It was interpreted in a way that this is nothing serious, you know. That it’s not going to lead to efficient human-to-human transmission so there was a lack of effective response to the outbreak at the local level.

2. Close the live animal markets.

Almost 1/3 of Chinese city dwellers eat wild animals. This is how novel viruses jump from animals to humans. The SARS epidemic was eventually traced to the consumption of a small raccoon-like creature called a civet.

The number-one suspect in this epidemic is the Pangolin. An anteater like an animal that is consumed because of its supposed healing qualities for many diseases.

The first outbreak of COVID-19 was traced to the live animal market in Wuhan that was quickly shut down. Today, the government ordered live animal markets closed nationwide. Kelly Lee is an infectious disease expert at Simon Fraser University.

According to Lee,

These markets are — a lot of them are illegal. And so they’re not well regulated. This is a really dangerous combination if we’re looking at disease, microbes, pathogens, jumping species. It’s a perfect opportunity to do that.

3. Propaganda does not equal to public health

The Chinese government released these videos supposedly showing the COVID-19 virus being fought by an elaborate campaign to spray airplane exteriors and fumigate entire cities.

According to Garrett,

There are a lot of videos like this. Of these mysterious fogging machines spraying god-knows-what all over the place. I can’t think of any substance you could spray in an open street in the manner that’s depicted that would have any impact on a virus at all. So it’s very hard to understand what, besides public relations, was the point.

4. The role of the WHO should be revised

On January 28, director-general of the WHO, the World Health Organization Dr. Tedros Adhanom braces came to Beijing for a personal meeting with President Xi Jinping At that time, China was reporting 4,537 cases of infection from COVID-19.

An independent assessment in The Lancet medical journal estimated that as of January 25th there were 75,800 in the city of Wuhan alone but Dr. Tedros bent over backward to praise China’s handling of the outbreak.

According to Lee,

He has to work with the government and he has to ensure that lines of communication remain open. So his words were to ensure that you know the Chinese relations remained positive.

At the Tedros-Xi Jinping meeting, the Chinese government reportedly insisted that the WHO delay any proclamation of a global health emergency. Dr. Tedros complied.

According to Huang,

I believe indeed that the WHO has been following the right procedure in terms of responding to the outbreak. And although I do believe that they could have acted earlier.

5. Don’t trust the numbers

It turns out that Chinese authorities have six times changed the method used to tabulate infected people. Which has medical experts around the world now doubting the value of their official figures.

Garrett,

When you started seeing this long period where the numbers either didn’t budge or even on one day, went backward. To me, that just looked like completely fabricated figures.

Lee,

I hope the Chinese government, you know, not just the central government but also the local government as well truly draw the lessons from the outbreak and takes measures to improve the transparency and openness, you know to make sure that this time, the same tragic is not going to happen again.

Garrett,

I’m very nervous that as everybody is now returning from the lunar holiday extension and eventually starts going back to work and back to school that we’re going to see a resurgence. A sort of you know epidemic number two. Gabriel Leung, whose an epidemiologist in Hong Kong has predicted that this actually could end up infecting 65% of all human beings on earth.

Scientists are still figuring out the death rate which appears to be much higher in China than outside it. But they say that even if this outbreak is contained we need to quickly learn the lessons from it.

With millions of people on international flights every day it is likely only a matter of time before the world faces a truly global pandemic.

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