DANIELLE ZHI JIAO GOH WRITES – China began rolling out 5G (fifth generation wireless technology) services in 50 cities at the end of 2019, so people assumed that information could be spread rapidly and that people would be more connected. The current Coronavirus outbreak proves otherwise. Technology certainly has been unable to solve this viral problem.
Since the order to quarantine cities during Spring Festival holidays, Chinese netizens have been seeking information from online platforms like WeChat and Weibo. But that has not been a sufficient help. There isn’t an official state website for collective data across China and the first official statements coming from Wuhan were unclear. Medical equipment statistics like the number of masks available in hospitals was wrongly stated three times in one speech.
Not that thing haven’t improved. Impressively, within a month, a Chinese lab had isolated and identified the Coronavirus. China is definitely better prepared than in 2003, while dealing with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Unfortunately, there are still over 9000 infected cases in China, and Chinese officials have suggested that more will surface in the coming days due to the long incubation period (10-14 days) of this particular virus.
Initially, the general public had little knowledge of how contagious the virus was, and that on the same day of the quarantine announcement in Wuhan, an estimated of 300,000 people fled the city even though many of them were already showing symptoms of Coronavirus.
Low level knowledge of a disastrous outbreak isn’t uncommon. A research report from Health Promotion International by Oxford Academic has shown similar situations in Singapore, a country with half the population size of Wuhan, during the outbreak of the SARS virus. There was a low level of knowledge of the SARS virus but the Singapore government managed to tackle the virus in part because of a high level of public trust in its governance. Citizens followed preventive measures closely and needed very little information to feel confident to cope with SARS.
Similarly, in China, citizens were confident that the virus could be contained by the government. Paradoxically, the overwhelming level of public trust was what fueled the spread of the virus. The older generation relies heavily on the state channels for official news. Early online rumors of a virus were dismissed as fake news. Official information was only gradually disseminated on state TV late in January, after the first death, and even then many citizens did not heed government advice to wear masks in public. It wasn’t until the lockdown of Wuhan and the emphasis on avoiding gatherings for Spring Festival that people came to truly understand the severity of the virus.
It has now been revealed that Chinese citizens were only informed about the virus one month after the first case was discovered. People wonder, if China can build a hospital in Wuhan in six days, why did it take more days to inform the public?
As the ancient Chinese saying goes: “An army puffed up with pride is bound to lose.” Over-confidence in the Wuhan local government to control the virus behind the scenes has backfired and delayed curbing the spread of the virus.
What the central government could do right now is to learn from Hong Kong, which has been updating detailed information of all local Coronavirus cases detected on the front page of its official website. Information transparency is the key to allowing its citizen to feel control over the crisis so as to ease the tension.
One positive thing that might be said is that perhaps the Chinese people have no mortal everlasting enemies. Japan and South Korea have won considerable praise for sending medical supplies to Wuhan. Even firms in the U.S. are offering help. Perhaps, despite the tragic loss of lives whose end we have not yet seen, improved bilateral relations will be born from the misery of this epidemic.