China needs to prioritize transparency during the coronavirus epidemic

Wuhan, China, where an outbreak of the coronavirus was first reported. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

The University of Maryland’s Health Center has been alerting students about a new coronavirus — and though it doesn’t yet appear to be a threat to Maryland residents, elsewhere, the epidemic is wreaking havoc. As of Sunday, over 2,000 people have been infected and 56 people have died in China since the outbreak began in the city of Wuhan in December 2019. The disease has also spread internationally; in the United States, five cases have been confirmed, with more in Europe

This is not the first time China has faced a disastrous disease outbreak. In the past, the Chinese government failed to properly contain the SARS virus, even deceiving the public about its severity. This time around, officials appear to be making amends by denouncing any attempt to withhold information about the coronavirus. 

However, it’s not hard to see the naivete in believing an authoritarian government that controls its domestic media on matters of censorship. Given the trajectory of the disease, it appears the government is still more concerned with preserving the country’s public image than appropriately handling the epidemic. 

At the start of the outbreak, local officials were overly optimistic as the situation rapidly deteriorated. For weeks, they asserted that there was a low chance of human-to-human transmission, despite a suspicious increase in the number of cases. It wasn’t until Wuhan held a massive banquet of more than 40,000 families that Beijing sent epidemiologists to investigate the virus and confirmed that it could be transmitted between people. 

Even after the government publicly acknowledged the situation, Chinese people have raised concerns about the accuracy and timeliness of the updates provided by their authorities. Articles and videos about the epidemic have been taken down and residents have been detained for spreading “rumors” about the virus. Yu Ping, a former reporter for the investigative newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily, notably states that “It’s not public disclosure … It’s a naked information monopoly.”

On the surface, China is taking an iron-fisted approach to the epidemic, using brute force in an attempt to prevent the virus from spreading. More than 50 million people have been put on lockdown and travel restrictions have been imposed on at least 17 cities. In addition, several Chinese New Year celebrations have been canceled and screening points have been implemented nationwide to check the temperature of travelers

But lockdowns aren’t always the most effective solution, as they trigger a whole host of problems. Unsurprisingly, lockdowns can cause unnecessary panic. Coronavirus patients are also more inclined to lie about their conditions to circumvent the officials, making it more difficult to collect accurate information which could potentially aid in the spreading of the disease. Given the rapid increase in the number of cases recently, it’s clear that the lockdown has failed.  

China’s overall response to the epidemic is more indicative of a knee-jerk reaction to past criticism instead of a rational assessment of the situation. This is the largest quarantine in history, yet it has failed to contain the disease as it spreads like wildfire in China and has begun to take root internationally. China needs to dedicate more resources to understanding the virus and proper infection prevention — contrary to popular belief, face masks are not as effective as they seem — instead of these extreme, almost theatrical measures.  

In the absence of a more adept response from China, this epidemic will likely continue to spread, posing a threat not just to Chinese citizens but to the rest of the world as well.

Kevin Hu is a sophomore physiology and neurobiology major. He can be reached at kevxhu@gmail.com.

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