In the past week or so a lot of disturbing rumors have been emerging from China about the COVID-19 viral outbreak. Most of them are unofficially reported and just pass through the grapevine, for example about hospitals in Wuhan turning people away because they’re at maximum capacity, doctors abandoning their posts, human-to-human transmission since almost two weeks before it was officially announced, a single patient infecting 14 medical staff (this one was reported, but details were scarce– was it negligence? super-contagious? early case?), and more.
In Western media, I’m seeing a lot of “China experienced SARS before so they’re being more effective this time,” especially pointing to Xi Jinping’s directive to hospitals and local governments to be transparent and threatening to punish individuals for hiding information. However, there are numerous problems with that belief. There isn’t a lot of information out there so a lot of this is guesswork/conjecture, but most should hold up since it more relates to systemic issues than anything else:
(1) The view that past SARS experience or a government directive to be transparent will be effective fundamentally misunderstands how organizations in China work. “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away” is an oft-used expression– the central government can say whatever it wants, but the reality is that logistically and in terms of information China is very fractured, and even when forced to operate cohesively it doesn’t have the experience of doing so. People share information internally, and vertically if they are forced to, but horizontal information flow is slow and inefficient. Outside of the T1 cities (Beijing/Shanghai/Shenzhen/Guangdong/Chongqing/Tianjin), the country is mostly managed at the provincial level, and the attention to detail is lacking. “Chabuduo” (“good enough” / “cutting corners”) is pervasive.
(2) Not hiding future information is maybe doable… but how do they backtrack on information they’ve already been hiding? Ex. Why were there cases already in Thailand, Japan, etc. but supposedly all Chinese cases were confined exclusively to Wuhan? That doesn’t make any sense– almost certainly there were already cases in other Chinese cities weeks back. It’s unclear whether that would have been deliberate hiding of info to avoid mass-panic, or if it was just a failure of info-transfer.
(3) The timing is a little fuzzy for me because I’m getting my info second-hand + time-zone differences… but approximately 4 days ago no one was talking about this in China, social media and news were all focused on the New Year holiday. Literally overnight, that changed, and now it’s a universal concern. That’s good because people are actually prepping (insofar as they are able to)– but maybe extremely bad because it suggests that there was some sort of passive censorship that was lifted. Examples (speculative, since my Chinese isn’t good enough yet to read primary sources): news may have been written dismissively before, particularly alarmist comments may have been deleted or redirected, and the fake government disinformation accounts that make hundreds of thousands/millions of misdirection posts may have been instructed to behave differently. If these sorts of passive censorship mechanisms were lifted, as it appears they may have been, that could be bad because it may be an indication that the government believes they cannot contain the situation anymore.
(4) I mentioned “prepping insofar as they are able to”– Well, they may not always be able to. T1 cities are probably adequately prepared for this. Provincial areas are definitely not. (“Provincial” does not mean farm areas, just means non-capital regions). This is probably an extreme example since it was in a “small town” of 500,000 people in the poorest province, but I went to the hospital there (I had a bacterial infection) and there was no soap in the bathrooms. In a hospital! And the doctors used those bathrooms too. Maybe it was ignorance, or chabuduo, or bad process, but no matter what, that should never happen, you could have walked 2 mins down the street and found a store selling soap. Will they have soap when there’s a viral emergency? Almost certainly yes. Will they have other things they fail to do because of ignorance, chabuduo, or bad process during a viral emergency? Almost certainly yes.