EPA/Franck Robichon

Opinion – The challenge of containing the Wuhan coronavirus in Greater China

The remark of President Xi Jinping on January 20 that China must “resolutely contain” the Wuhan coronavirus has not only triggered an immediate open release of the increasing figures of infected persons in the mainland, but also highlighted the challenges confronted by governments of Greater China (the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) in coping with the spreading virus.

Following President Xi’s remarks, the State Council, the Political Law Committee, and the National Health Commission mobilized all government departments and citizens in Wuhan to fight against the virus, which stemmed from a market where a certain virus from wild animals was suspected of infecting some people.

The infectious disease infiltrated into the community near the market, affecting hospital doctors and nurses. When the mysterious illness was reported by the Hong Kong media in late November and December, there were little reactions from mainland officials, who might believe that the media outside the People’s Republic of China (PRC) exaggerated the situation.

However, President Xi’s open acknowledgement of the virus problem on January 20 was a turning point that has made not just the Wuhan city administration to tackle the virus, but it also signalled that the virus was quickly spreading to other cities. Two days after the President’s comment, it was clear that the Wuhan Coronavirus went to other cities in Greater China, including Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.

The relatively fast response of the PRC government to the outbreak of the Wuhan virus is a far cry from the sluggish response to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, when there was clearly a cover-up by local authorities prior to the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. Although some critics of the PRC government has argued that it remains “slow” in responding to the Wuhan virus, objectively speaking, Beijing’s reaction to the public health crisis is already much faster than the 2003 SARS experiences.

The main reason is that Beijing sees health crisis as impacting on its national security, which is defined broadly to include not only regime security but also public health safety. Another reason is that the PRC leaders do not wish to see the virus to tarnish the good image of a rapidly rising China.

As such, China is willing to work quickly with the World Health Organization to tackle the Wuhan virus.

The challenges to the governments of the PRC, the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau are tremendous from now to the summer, when the virus would perhaps likely and hopefully fade away if it follows the same pattern of SARS.

This Wuhan virus, according to some mass media, appears to be weaker than SARS because the former causes a death rate of roughly 2.2 percent, whereas the mortality rate cased by SARS was as high as 25 percent.

The Wuhan virus affects mostly the elderly and those who have weak health while SARS tended to affect the middle-aged and elderly people from late 2002 to the summer of 2003.

The foremost challenge to the governments of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan is whether they will take tougher measures in barring people from Wuhan to visit their territories and preventing their own residents from visiting Wuhan. So far, this policy has not yet been implemented by Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.

Taiwan is perhaps fortunate, as the tense relations between Beijing and Taipei had already made the PRC stop the mainlanders from visiting Taiwan in August 2019. Still, the virus can travel fast through air and sea routes. As such, Taiwan cannot be complacent toward the Wuhan virus.

In fact, some Taiwan people have become so frightened with the Wuhan virus that they flocked to buy masks, which went out of stock quickly.

The Hong Kong government has been criticized for not imposing stricter measures to control the Wuhan residents from visiting Hong Kong and to stop Hong Kong residents from visiting Wuhan.

As with Hong Kong, Macau will likely witness the fast spread of the virus in the community due to the tremendous amount of mainland visitors, including those from Wuhan, to visit Macau every day. In short, border control would have to be considered later when the Wuhan Coronavirus is going to be more widespread.

The second challenge is how the governments of Greater China respond to the patients infected with the virus. Segregation and quarantine of the infected persons have to be implemented in Wuhan and other cities of Greater China. If not, the virus can spread at a relatively fast rate, although it does not appear to be as lethal than SARS.

The governments of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan must find remote places where the infected patients should and would be quarantined and segregated so that the virus would not be transmitted to other people easily and extensively.
Third, the eating culture and practice of some Chinese, who love wild animals, would have to be reviewed and legally banned in Greater China.

The SARS was found to be directly caused by those people who loved to eat civet cats. In the era of globalization, animal diseases can spread to human beings easily. Most importantly, such diseases can mutate and may transmit from humans to humans. Hence, the governments of Greater China must control the consumption of wild animals in a much stricter manner.

Fourth, the contingency plan for public health crises in Greater China will have to be implemented. After SARS, the governments of Greater China improved their contingency plan in the event of an outbreak of public health crisis. The SARS and Wuhan Coronavirus constitute public health crises that could endanger the legitimacy of the central, provincial, and local governments in the PRC.

The Wuhan government already appealed to citizens to refrain from going out of the city and to other citizens outside the city not to enter Wuhan. Moreover, it asked the city’s residents to minimize holding mass events to prevent the spread of the disease. The fast response of the local government, to a large extent, was due to the directive from Beijing immediately after President Xi’s important remarks on January 20.

In the implementation of the contingency plan in response to infectious disease, Taiwan’s central government led by Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party has to coordinate well with the other local governments. In 2003, Taiwan did not really cope with SARS effectively, showing panic among hospital workers.

Hong Kong and Macau are special because of their relatively small size, which means that the two Southern Chinese cities are the most vulnerable to the infectious disease and that they must react efficiently, effectively, and transparently to the Wuhan virus.

Both governments have to review the development of the Wuhan virus on a daily basis, including an assessment of whether schools should be closed, whether mainland visitors and local residents who are found to have fever at the custom checkpoints should be quarantined immediately at segregated places, whether masks can be produced locally with sufficient quantity, and whether hospital staff would be sufficient to tackle the worsening public health crisis.

Coping with the Wuhan Coronavirus will have tremendous political implications for the governments of Greater China. The more effective a government can contain the disease, the stronger its legitimacy. Conversely, weak governments that cannot contain its spread would have its legitimacy undermined.

As such, the Hong Kong government’s legitimacy is at stake. After the extradition bill saga ended with its withdrawal in September 2019, it is now facing the ordeal of dealing with another crisis. If the government cannot cope with it well, the November legislative elections would witness another result of a democratic rebound, although it would be quite unlikely that the democrats would be able to grasp the majority of the legislative seats due to the structural division of the Legislative Council into two chambers: functional constituencies that are traditionally dominated by pro-government and pro-Beijing members, and geographical constituencies that the democrats tend to be relatively stronger.

The Macau government led by Ho Iat Seng is encountering its first public health challenge: how to prevent the spread of the Wuhan disease into the community and how to safeguard the health of the Macau residents.

Hopefully, the Wuhan Coronavirus would fade away more quickly than the SARS. But judging from its rapidly increasing number of those mainland Chinese who are infected, the origin of the disease had not been identified and tackled effectively in December and early January. Therefore, the PRC government has to learn a lesson from the outbreak of the Wuhan virus by implementing a nation-wide education campaign through the current determined combat of the disease through mass mobilization.