January 22, 2020

YANG | Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me: On the Wuhan Coronavirus Outbreak

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As I was packing up on Friday, preparing myself for an unusually tiresome journey back to Ithaca totaling about three days on the road with three layovers, my phone buzzed: the U.S. Center for Disease Control announced that it would begin screening passengers arriving from Wuhan, China at Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco airports. Given my first layover in L.A.— lasting an unbelievably long twelve hours and giving me an excuse to visit Santa Monica for a bit— I was quite worried. For one, though I did not visit Wuhan this winter break, I was reminded of the panic after the West Africa Ebola epidemic back in 2013, when an overreaction caused a public health crisis in the United States, putting many African passengers under duress. Given the tense political climate between the U.S. and China, who knows there won’t be a repeat? A second, perhaps more foreboding concern, underlies my thoughts: Is the outbreak really this bad?

Until this point, most of the Chinese domestic authoritative news about the Wuhan outbreak pointed to a relatively insignificant outbreak. The first case was reported to the World Health Organization by China on December 30, “pneumonia of unknown cause.” Online panic ensued: the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic was a mere 17 years ago, and to this day, the official name for SARS in China is 非典, “atypical pneumonia.” Back then, preparing for the Law School Admission Test, I followed the news as closely as a nervous test-taker possibly can. “Good news” quickly assuaged my concern.

Up until January 10, there were 41 cases confirmed, with one death, and that number stayed roughly the same until I was packing my luggage a week later. All the domestic news pointed to perhaps a new, but minor virus outbreak. On January 8, the headline by CCTV was eight Wuhan patients of “pneumonia of unknown cause” had recovered. In Xinhua, the official press agency, experts had said that the outbreak was “in control,” and most official press releases stressed that there had been no confirmed human-to-human transmission. Suppressing my concern, I did not even bother to finish tracking the story beyond push notifications.

Then, the deluge.

By the time I arrived at the Beijing airport, a story on two confirmed cases, one in Thailand and one in Japan, was circulating. That same day, Imperial College London researchers published a model suspecting up to 1,700 cases of the new virus.

By the time I was leaving Los Angeles on Sunday, official numbers jump up to 198 cases with three deaths.

By the time I was leaving Port Authority Bus Terminal on Monday, official numbers jumped to 224 cases and the central government issued an executive order, directing urgent efforts toward combating the outbreak. Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a chief expert of the National Health Commission and the doctor who discovered the SARS virus back in 2003, confirmed on the same day that human-to-human transmission was a method of infection.

Now, as your columnist is writing this piece, the latest figure is 549 cases with 17 deaths. There is also a confirmed case in the United States, in Washington state.

I am beyond exasperated, not only with the health ministry but with myself. Why did I have such resolute trust in the official narrative? From the start, I thought this time things would be different: that the government would have learned and evolved beyond the mentality of the 2000s when the SARS epidemic ravaged China and the globe. After initial suppression of information for months, cases reported outside China forced the government to be more open about the epidemic.

17 years have passed, and China now is evidently a much stronger nation. Your columnist is known to not be a friend of the regime, but even I believed my government had become a more professional institution, that they had evolved beyond their Soviet instincts and would have known better than to apply the old tactics of “controlling the people before the situation.” The fact that back when America’s CDC first announced screening procedure in the United States on Friday, my default reaction was to believe it was an overreaction influenced by current tensions between the two countries. Even I, a dissident, had trusted my government.

It is important to note that, beyond my belief in the competency of the Chinese government, one important factor contributed to my blind trust. On the very first days of the outbreak back in early January, eight people were arrested in Wuhan by the police “for spreading fake news relating to the pneumonia of unknown cause.” Like meerkats sensing the presence of coming predators, I perhaps subconsciously self-censored.

Who am I to care about it? I’m far away, up north in Tianjin, stressing over the LSAT test, and I was soon be out of the country. I became more optimistic about the Wuhan outbreak than I should have. Almost everybody did. From the very first days, when people reported that Wuhanese rarely wore face masks in the first two weeks, to the fact that there was a “thousand family dinner-party” celebrating Little Chinese New Year in Wuhan, self-censored individuals always find excuses to be overly optimistic until it is perhaps too late.

In fact, maybe we weren’t meerkats escaping predators. We were ostriches burying our heads in the sand.

Let this be another lesson, another tragedy, sadly and certainly not the last, of the cost of lies. May God bless the great nation that is China, sending reprieve to Wuhan and all those regions affected by this ongoing crisis.

Weifeng Yang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at weifengyang@cornellsun.com. Poplar  Sovereignty runs every other Thursday this semester.