What the future will bring for the 2019nCoV novel Wuhan coronavirus is still unclear. An epidemic it already is, but is it also a pandemic? Some 20 countries have reported infections, but it still could all fizzle out; 305 deaths can be forgotten by next week. Nobody can tell you how this will play out, not even the most experienced and/or smartest virologists and other experts.
Because there’s no telling what viruses will do, not even for them, and because while they have some idea about the infinitesimal size and lifespan of viruses, “ordinary” people have no grasp of either, and that includes managers, planners and politicians. Whether in the rich west or in “up and coming” China.
The timeline is quite literally terribly obvious. In early December -and it could have been even earlier-, it was obvious to doctors and Communist Party (CCP) politicians in Wuhan that something was wrong. But their painfully predictable reaction was to hope this would pass. Never a bad word should be uttered about the Party, and nothing said that could embarrass it.
December passed, as news was getting worse and more obvious due to a large number of “pneumonia” patients. Chinese doctors published an article in the Lancet this week (this week, 6 weeks after the fact!) saying human-to-human transmission had been established by mid-December.
But the code of silence was not broken, even when a man died from the virus on January 9. It took until mid-January before word got out, a full week later. By then millions of people had left and/or entered Wuhan, a city of 11 million, potentially infecting millions of other Chinese and perhaps people abroad. 5 million later left the city for Lunar New Year.
On January 10, the virus was defined and the sequence was shared, but testing didn’t start for another week; patients were registered as pneumonia sufferers, including those that died (we have no idea how many there were).
Then, mid January, doctors starting testing for the virus. The first “exported” case was noted in Thailand on January 13, but it still took more time for the potential threat to be realized and reported. The Party boys were still hoping it would all pass. Can you blame them? They are civil servants, they don’t know anything about viruses, or their threat.
Ironically, over 300 civil servants (Party officials) and health care workers were sanctioned very recently for not doing enough. The Party makes sure the blame is put on individuals, not on itself. Even if all they’ve done is follow the party line. It’s very simply how the system works. And not just in China. If the virus might come to a town near you, check where the blame is placed. It won’t be the president or prime minister, health workers will be first in line, civil servants second.
It’s good to note how fast the novel virus has spread. If only to show what those who are determined to keep such a thing silent are up against. Can’t be easy. 291 cases on Jan 20, 14,562 cases 13 days later. Those are exponential numbers, even if the number of fatalities “only” rose by 46 overnight.
It’s also good to keep in mind that the main threat in viruses is their ability to mutate and become deadlier. This virus now has at least those 14,562 hosts which they can use to mutate in. Hong Kong University doctor and epidemiologist Gabriel Leung and his team said in a Jan 31 report: “In our baseline scenario, we estimated 75,185 infections as of Jan 25.” . And they were reporting on Wuhan alone. In other words, well over 5 times as many hosts and chances for the virus to mutate in just one city. In a city of 11 million people, numbers like that are perhaps not that extreme.
Back to politics.
We have had two phases so far.
1 is first discovery followed by total silence.
2 is damage control, and deflecting all blame from the Party.
We are now in phase 3.
The WHO, which was caught napping as much as the Party in phase 2, lavishes great praise on that same Party now for its “extraordinary safety measures”. Locking down entire cities (increasingly people are not even allowed to leave their homes), speed-building hospitals, you name it. And the WHO is not the only entity praising the Party.
The reason why there is so much emphasis on this is that the CCP is desperate to show everyone, at home and abroad, that it is in control. That there is no reason to worry, at least not due to actions by the Party. If other countries have problems, that is not the Party’s fault.
And also, the Party will take it from here, no need for foreign assistance. They’ll allow in some doctors, preferably WHO related, and they have asked both the US and EU for medical equipment and doctors’ uniforms, hazmat suits, that sort of thing, just so nobody asks any further questions: see, we do accept help! We’ll let you know if we need anything.
Other than that, the Party is in full control, thank you very much. And if Chinese people start protesting the failures of the Party so far, as they are, that is none of anyone else’s business. “We” have it under control”. Ask the WHO, they said so too.
If the Party is allowed to get away with this behavior aimed at self-preservation above anything else, including human lives of both Chinese and foreigners, something bad is sure to happen. Maybe not this time, maybe this one will fizzle out. But the next one, or the one after that, will not.
It is obvious how dangerous this is, putting the interests of the Party, or the economy, above the risk of spreading global pandemic. But is is also obvious why it happens. And it wouldn’t or couldn’t happen only in China. Though the country in its present state is a ideal breeding ground.
Flights are halted. Hundreds of millions will soon be in lockdown. Exports will plunge, because production will. Which will hit the west as much as China. Just so the Party can say it did what had to be done, and so it will stay in power. Xi Jinping knows his power depends on the economy, but he thinks he has what it takes to hold on to power even when the economy tanks.
He can simply declare force majeure, he can tell his people how much worse things would have been had he not decided to lock down everything.
We’ve been following the numbers of infections and fatalities now for 2 weeks or so, even as we know they don’t mean much, they’re just Party propaganda. The Party will release what it thinks it must, but no more. Perhaps we need other sources; these will come if and when things get out of hand. Not that we know they will.
Xi can claim today that he has control. He can say things are not too bad, but we don’t really know, he’s issuing the numbers. What we do know, and there’s the crux, is that he was 6 weeks late in starting to acknowledge the epidemic, in contacting the outside world, in acknowledging his mistakes, and in acknowledging that such mistakes are baked into the model that keeps him in power.
Phase 1 is complete denial, not a word.
Phase 2 is damage control, massaging the numbers downward.
Phase 3 is “close all the doors, not to worry, nothing to see here, we got this, no you can’t come in, too risky!”
But, yeah, praise him while you can. The only praise he cares about is from people just as clueless as he is anyway.
The Party is a highly effective vehicle for protecting its own interests and survival. For other things, perhaps not so much. Viruses can be quite deadly at times. Combine them with politics and the risk factor rises exponentially.
Tragedy assured. Just not every single time.
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