EYESHENZHEN  /   Opinion

Painful lessons of the comeback virus

Writer: Wu Guangqiang  |  Editor: Jane Chen  |  From:  

A most joyful and prosperous holiday – the Spring Festival of the Year of the Rat – was ruined by an unexpected outbreak of a new coronavirus-related pneumonia known as 2019-nCoV. The SARS-like virus originated in early December 2019 in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province and a megacity in Central China with a population of over 10 million.

The combination of an unknown cause in the earliest infection cases and a lack of vigilance against a possible epidemic among Wuhan’s local authorities led to the fast spread of the virus. Infection cases skyrocketed, and with millions of Wuhan citizens (many of whom were already infected) flowing to all parts of the country, the whole country now faces a public health crisis.

Very soon thereafter, most provinces and major cities reported increasing numbers of infection cases, suspected infection cases and death tolls.

In an unprecedented move on Jan. 23, China locked down Wuhan to curb the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.

Starting 10 a.m. Jan. 23, all public transportation including city buses, subways, ferries and long-distance coaches in Wuhan were suspended, and outbound traffic terminals at airports and railway stations were also closed.

Meanwhile, every place and every person across the country have taken action to stop the transmission of the virus and prevent getting infected.

As the new virus is highly contagious, the speed and scope of its transmission is beyond imagination, so it is impossible to foresee when it will be contained. On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared China’s coronavirus a “global health emergency” though it decided not to just a week earlier.

I am one of the few who felt less surprised at the comeback of a virus, though I am surely one of the most heartbroken. In my view, the hard lessons of SARS of 2003 had never been learned.

On May 19, 2013, I published in Shenzhen Daily an article titled “10 years after SARS: Are we better prepared?” In it, I wrote, “The medical community and the general public have always been fearful of a SARS comeback or an outbreak of other epidemic diseases — and there are good reasons for such fears.”

I felt more skeptical than optimistic over China’s readiness to effectively control another outbreak, possibly on a larger scale, because of the following reasons. Firstly, the cause of SARS remains a mystery, so there is always the risk that new types of viruses may strike at any moment, catching us off guard. Secondly, I particularly emphasized the importance of the swift, complete and transparent disclosure of information related to the epidemic situation, calling it the key to successfully controlling the disease.

To show my concern about local officials’ habitual covering up of the truth about infectious diseases, I wrote, “It’s true that China is doing better in information disclosure, but memories of past health scandals continue to undermine the government’s credibility in dealing with outbreaks. Rumors abound that early cases of H7N9 were covered up for more than 20 days before they were reported.”

Unfortunately, my fears materialized again. In the early phase of the epidemic, which was crucial, Wuhan and the State health authorities miscalculated and mishandled the grave situation. When there were clear signs that a contagious disease was spreading with increasing infections, the local government punished several people, reportedly all medical workers, for “spreading false information.” The State health authorities failed to make correct assessments of the situation and missed the transient chance to control the virus in its infancy.

Had Wuhan authorities been more alert to the emerging infections and sought professional advice much sooner, the consequences of the outbreak could have been much less. If our health experts had acted more professionally, the tragedy could have been prevented.

Are these bloody lessons sufficient to wake us up?

(The author is an English tutor and freelance writer)