I’m seeing a number of similarities between the way that China is responding to the coronavirus epidemic, and the way governments and individuals responded to Ebola in Africa. Frankly, I’m startled, because the Chinese government should know better, and its people are more educated than the average African: yet, the similarities persist.
Consider government actions to control an outbreak of disease. In Africa, we saw:
- Initial denial. Governments tried to protect their economies, particularly tourism, by denying that there was an epidemic at all. Those insisting that the problem was real were denigrated, mocked, and sometimes even locked up by local authorities desperate to prevent higher-ups from taking notice that they might have “dropped the ball”.
- When the problem could no longer be covered up, fingers were pointed to blame other – usually outside – individuals and groups. Neighboring countries, different tribal customs, “uneducated” or “primitive” peoples (as opposed to the “elite”, as those in power styled themselves), and so on were all blamed. The disease was used to whip up xenophobic frenzy against outsiders, and in some cases actually led to armed conflict between groups.
- Self-isolation. Communities would band together to keep out people they didn’t know – up to and including killing them if they kept on coming. Similarly, outsiders who claimed to want to help them treat the disease, no matter how “official” or genuine they might be, were treated with dire suspicion; their presence (and their advice) was often rejected or ignored. Local officials were tasked with preventing further outbreaks or the spread of the disease, which meant many of them seized powers to which they had no right, and tried to enforce draconian control by any and all means necessary.
- Relief supplies, including medication, food, etc., were tightly controlled by the central government. Aid organizations who tried to administer their own supplies were put under great pressure to adhere to government requirements, and much of their aid was stolen or “went missing in transit” between points of entry and the areas where it was needed. The government made sure its supporters got most of those supplies, and the best of what was available. Less favored groups were left to wither on the vine.
- Stigmatization of survivors of the disease. In Ebola’s case, of course, where it’s been demonstrated that survivors can still carry and transmit the disease, that’s founded on fact; but it went much further than that. If a member of your family had died of Ebola, even if you didn’t catch the disease, you were regarded with at least suspicion as a potential carrier, and shunned for at least some period of time. There were reports that in remote areas, entire villages where the disease had been rampant had simply “disappeared”. I wouldn’t be surprised if their neighbors had decided to stop the disease in its tracks by eliminating what they saw as its source. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened in Africa.
What are we seeing in China? It’s being criticized for failing to deal with the crisis in a timely, efficient and honest manner. To quote just one article: “China now faces international vilification and potential domestic unrest as it blunders through continued cover-ups, lies, and repression that have already failed to stop the virus and may well be fanning the flames of its spread.” Similarities between China’s moves to contain the coronavirus, and those directed against Ebola in Africa, are many.
- Delayed, belated notification and/or admission that there was a problem at all. Initial evidence of the coronavirus must have been available in November or December, but the official admission of its existence – which might have permitted early and more successful measures to prevent its spread – didn’t happen until the beginning of January.
- Finger-pointing. Doctors who tried to alert their medical colleagues were pilloried, and forced to admit that they had been “rumor-mongering”. Whistleblowers were punished. Aspersions were cast on those who had been eating “exotic” foods such as bat soup, blaming the existence of the disease on a traditional practice that’s been prevalent in China for centuries, even millennia. Some sources even blamed the Western world for deliberately launching a biological warfare attack on China (although, to their credit, the national authorities tried to squash such nonsense whenever it reared its head). It appears that many of the mistakes made by Chinese authorities during the SARS epidemic in 2003 are being repeated.
- Self-isolation, this time officially encouraged. At many apartment buildings and in many neighborhoods, locals have formed impromptu police units, checking ID’s and denying entry to anyone who doesn’t live there. Outsiders are regarded with suspicion as potential disease vectors. Other locals are patrolling the streets, arresting anyone who doesn’t have a good reason to be traveling (and they decide, often arbitrarily, what is, or is not, a good reason). The Communist Party is holding its officials responsible for any further spread of the disease, which means that those officials are usurping normal social and bureaucratic norms and disciplines to exercise draconian control over anyone and everyone. People are literally being kidnapped off the streets for daring to move around.
- Relief supplies – in this case, medical supplies in particular, but also foodstuffs and basic household needs like diapers, toilet paper, etc. – are tightly controlled, and their distribution is rationed (except to party officials and senior members, of course). Surgical masks and medical respirators have allegedly been declared a “strategic national resource”, so that their export can be controlled (or, in so many words, blocked). Factories making them have been urged to get back to work, despite the quarantine. Others are converting production to make them instead of what they made before. (The demand is incredible. Consider: China has well over a billion people. If each of them needs one mask per day, and medical personnel need several, they can easily go through two billion masks every day. Under normal conditions, I doubt the country produced even a hundredth of that quantity. The needs of the rest of the world, who up until now have depended on China to supply them, are being ignored.)
- Stigmatization of survivors. This isn’t official, and it hasn’t been taken to the same extent as Ebola in Africa, but some reports suggest that survivors of coronavirus are treated with suspicion and kept at a distance by others in their community, even though medical authorities have pronounced them cured.
Lots of similarities, aren’t there? Perhaps it’s basic human nature at work, as already displayed towards coronavirus evacuees in Ukraine. If coronavirus breaks loose in the USA, will we see the same reactions and responses here? I daresay we will.