News analysis

Wuhan virus: All-out effort by China to contain outbreak after sluggish initial response

Medical team members heading to Wuhan to reinforce hospitals fighting the coronavirus outbreak prepare to board the train at Nanjing South Railway Station in Nanjing City, Jiangsu Province, China on Jan 25, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

In the space of a week, the reported cases of the Sars-like coronavirus have spiked dramatically in China, from dozens in one province to nearly 2,000 all over the country.

The drastic measures put in place over the past seven days, including shutting off entire cities and suspending public transport, beg the question whether it is all a bid to compensate for a sluggish response in the early days of the outbreak.

Over seven days, China has gone from merely warning of there being potentially more cases, to going into full-on crisis mode.

From the time the virus first surfaced in late December to around Jan 18, mentions of the mysterious pneumonia were barely seen on news media, while doctors were barred from discussing the cases. Even patients who posted about their experiences on social media had their posts scrubbed.

But when Beijing realised around the middle of this month that it had a potential pandemic on its hands, there was a sea change in public communications.

Most news outlets now like Shanghai's The Paper, nationalist tabloid Global Times and the official Xinhua news agency have dedicated microsites dealing with updates on the outbreaks.

Scientists have predicted that the spread of the disease is much wider than reported, with numbers ranging between 4,000 and 12,700.

The surge could be due to a combination of better detection, testing and reporting of cases, as well as an increase in travel during the Chinese New Year period, said Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Research Programme at Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Despite the World Health Organisation's decision not to declare the outbreak an emergency of international concern, the epidemic is a "clear and ongoing global health threat", scientists at the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London wrote in their study published on their website on Saturday.


There are suggestions that the initial lack of a robust response led to a cavalier attitude among people in Wuhan. Many felt doctors were exaggerating a seasonal flu when patients were asked to take precautions such as wearing a mask and avoiding crowded areas. This has changed, as seen in pictures and online videos of scenes of overwhelmed hospitals and near-hysterical patients trying to get the attention of medical staff. The city and several others in Hubei province are also under lockdown, with no one allowed in or out of the cities and tough regulations about wearing masks in public.

While these measures may seem draconian, they can be effective in curbing the travel-related spread of the virus, said Prof MacIntyre.

But some people still do not recognise the severity of the situation. In Malaysia, a Chinese couple whose child was suspected of having the virus tried to evade quarantine. In Singapore, travelling companions of its first confirmed case went to Malaysia despite some of them being suspected of having the virus. Three of them were later confirmed to be infected.

Then there are the tensions between China's local and central governments. The local authorities are often hesitant to report bad news to Beijing for fear of being seen as incompetent, although it is the central government's help that is needed in such situations.

It seems Beijing is cognisant of such loopholes and has in recent days set up an online platform for people to report what they deem to be inadequate handling of the situation by provincial authorities.

But only time will tell how effective these measures truly are in dealing with the outbreak.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2020, with the headline 'All-out effort by China to contain outbreak after sluggish initial response'. Subscribe