Opinion – Local negligence and central remedies in response to Wuhan’s coronavirus

The events unfolding shortly before and after President Xi Jinping’s directive on January 20 to terminate the spread of Wuhan’s coronavirus have shown not only public mismanagement in Wuhan but also the very swift action from the central government in Beijing to adopt remedial measures.

On January 27, President Xi issued another directive to order all localities to implement the central order of containing the spread of the virus to all parts of China. On the same day, Premier Li Keqiang visited Wuhan’s hospital and supermarkets, boosting the morale of hospital staff.

His visit showed that Beijing attaches utmost importance to the containment of the disease, especially as Li heads a leading small group to deal with the Coronavirus. 

The central government realizes the severity of the situation and sees the spread of Coronavirus as a public health crisis that endangers public safety and challenges the legitimacy of the Party-state. It mobilizes all provinces to contain the Coronavirus. 

At the same time, some provinces and cities sent their medical staff to assist Wuhan to fight against the disease. On the night of January 24, 450 medical staff members of the People’s Liberation Army from Shanghai, Chongqing and Sian were approved by the Central Military Commission to be sent to help the hospital staff in Wuhan.

From the social media discussion and reports, the Wuhan administration appeared to be negligent in its public health governance starting from December 8, when the first case of the disease was reportedly found, to late December 2019. The Wuhan government acted slowly until December 30 when its hygiene and health committee issued a directive to order all local hospitals to report all suspected cases of the virus to the city administration.

On December 31, the National Health Commission from Beijing sent an expert group to lead the city on how to tackle the public health crisis, marking a turning point in the public health crisis.

On January 1, the Huanan Seafood Market was ordered to terminate its operation. The wild animals, which were put in cages without proper hygienic control in the market, and which were sold to customers, appeared to be the origin of the coronavirus.

On January 11, the first case of death due to the coronavirus, which was designated by the World Health Organization as 2019-nCoV, was formally reported. However, the Wuhan government did not take action to check the temperatures of passengers going through various custom checkpoints, like airport, railway stations, high-speed rail station and harbors until January 14.

On January 11, according to the mainland media, a couple, who worked in the Huanan market and who were suspected of being infected with the virus, were not isolated by the hospital. They were reportedly allowed to visit the hospital and returned home. If this report was true, there was negligence on the part of local hospital authorities.

On January 14, a few Hong Kong reporters were arrested by the Wuhan authorities for trying to investigate the causes of the Coronavirus. Secrecy and non-transparency were, however, detrimental to any government in dealing with public health crisis.

On January 18, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, an authority in dealing with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, visited Wuhan and investigated the health crisis. He said that the virus appeared to be transmittable through human beings. On the next day, he went straight to Beijing to report the severity of the situation. On January 20, Zhong was formally appointed by Beijing’s National Health Commission to head a group to deal with the Coronavirus.

Nevertheless, some mainland netizens remarked that the Wuhan government appeared to be insensitive to the seriousness of the Coronavirus. On January 19, one day before President Xi issued the directive to contain the spread of the virus, Wuhan had held a banquet involving 40,000 residents – a move that, in the eyes of netizens, endangered the lives of the attendees due to the highly contagious disease. On the same day, some health officials in Wuhan claimed that the Coronavirus was “not very contagious” and that the risks of human-to-human transmissions were “low.” The assessment of some Wuhan officials was apparently different from Dr. Zhong, who is the authority in infectious diseases and who played a crucial role in China’s combat against SARS.

The Wuhan administration appeared to lack a reporting mechanism for its local hospitals to report the disease from December 8 to 30. It also lacked the sensitivity to the contagiousness of Coronavirus even on January 18, when Dr. Zhong offered his expert advice, and on January 19, when a mass banquet was still allowed to be held.

Beijing has been acting very quickly, ordering a lockdown of the Wuhan city and disallowing those people who stay in Hubei to leave the provincial territory. Other provinces and cities have followed suit, including an interesting case of Shantou whose local government claimed on 26 January that the city would terminate public transport and inspect all those people who entered Shantou. Interestingly, Shantou quickly diluted its measures by announcing the sterilization of all public transport vehicles and ferries. 

Given that Henan is a province where many people from Wuhan city and Hubei province reside, the Henan province has implemented strict measures to contain the spread of Coronavirus, including a ban on villagers to leave their villages.

On January 27, major cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Nanjing announced that a lockdown of their municipal areas would not be implemented. Any lockdown of cities would mean that their operations, including various businesses, would be severely disrupted. Once Beijing’s National Health Commission lays out a principle that local governments have the autonomy to take swift actions to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, different localities have adopted different measures, including Macau and Hong Kong.

However, some residents in the Wuhan city and Hubei province have complained that they are discriminated in the nationwide campaign to contain the disease. 

The city of Wuhan is encountering a crisis of governance. Face masks have remained inadequate. Some citizens in Wuhan complained that although they have fever and other illness, local hospitals have failed to admit them. Objectively speaking, local hospitals are overstretched in its manpower, resources and capacity. Some doctors and nurses are encountering tremendous stress, especially as they might not experience the SARS outbreak. The construction of a new specialized hospital began in Wuhan on January 23, demonstrating the city’s swift response to the public health crisis.

The Wuhan mayor, Zhou Xianwang, defended on the CCTV on January 27 that, due to the need for local authorities to report to the higher level officialdom for investigation and approval, infectious diseases could not be formally reported to the public until the State Council made its final decision.

Zhou added that he and the local party officials were willing to step down to appease public anger. After Zhou’s interview, some netizens criticized him for wearing a mask reversely and improperly during the CCTV interview. His public explanation failed to appease public anger. He admitted that 5 million people had left the city of Wuhan before travel restrictions were imposed just ahead of the Chinese New Year. 

Given the huge number of Chinese citizens moving back to their hometowns days before the Lunar Chinese New Year, the outbreak of Coronavirus and the sluggish response of the Wuhan government had devastating impacts on not only the public health of citizens in the entire country, but also the economy later.

The responses from Macau have been much faster than that from Hong Kong. Macau Chief Executive Ho Iat Seng remarked on January 23 that Macau’s casinos would be closed if multiple cases of the Coronavirus might spread quickly in the territory.

The Macau government ordered 20 million masks after the first Coronavirus case was confirmed. It extended holidays for all schools until at least February 10, and then ten local higher education institutions followed suit by extending the holidays until at least February 11.

The Hong Kong government has been criticized by some citizens for acting slowly. On January 25, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that schools would be shut down until February 17. Masks in the territory were insufficient and some pharmacy shops fetched up the prices of masks to an unreasonably high level, but government officials appeared to take no action except for appealing to all pharmacies to observe their social responsibility.

Macau, however, has witnessed its government selling masks to citizens at low prices. The governmental response to the Coronavirus has been more effective and much faster in Macau.

In conclusion, the outbreak of Coronavirus in China has demonstrated the sluggish response, negligence and mismanagement of the local government in Wuhan, resulting in the very swift remedial action from the central leadership in Beijing. In response to the spread of the virus, local governments in China, including the special administrative regions of Macau and Hong Kong, do enjoy a high degree of autonomy and discretion. As such, the local leadership in containing the spread of the virus remains to be observed closely.

MNA Political commentator