Coronavirus: Front-line Fighters

Coronavirus: Keeping the spirit alive as the battle continues in China

A doctor being disinfected by his colleague earlier this month in a quarantine zone in Wuhan, the city in China's central Hubei province that is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. A People's Liberation Army medical team starting work on Jan 2
A doctor being disinfected by his colleague earlier this month in a quarantine zone in Wuhan, the city in China's central Hubei province that is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
A doctor being disinfected by his colleague earlier this month in a quarantine zone in Wuhan, the city in China's central Hubei province that is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. A People's Liberation Army medical team starting work on Jan 2
A People's Liberation Army medical team starting work on Jan 26 at Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, taking over two wards of the hospital and bringing with them much-needed supplies and equipment.PHOTO: XINHUA
A doctor being disinfected by his colleague earlier this month in a quarantine zone in Wuhan, the city in China's central Hubei province that is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. A People's Liberation Army medical team starting work on Jan 2
Passers-by having their temperatures taken on Thursday at a roadblock in Guangzhou province. Fever screening is among the measures China is taking to prevent further spread of the virus in the country. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
A doctor being disinfected by his colleague earlier this month in a quarantine zone in Wuhan, the city in China's central Hubei province that is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. A People's Liberation Army medical team starting work on Jan 2
Dr Wen Yuanyuan of Zhejiang Zhoushan Hospital on a Valentine's Day video call on Friday with her husband, Dr Yang Zhiqiang, who was among the second batch of medical workers dispatched to Wuhan.PHOTO: XINHUA

Positive stories of healthcare workers in China aim to turn the tide of public opinion

In the annual Lantern Festival show on China's state television just over a week ago, doctors in white robes stood on stage with celebrities like Ulan Tuya, Qu Dan and Wei Yunxi, waving the national flag and joining in the popular patriotic song, Me And My Motherland.

In fact, one could say the true celebrities of the extravaganza were the medical professionals, who were being hailed for their bravery and sacrifice in facing down the coronavirus that had taken hold of the nation.

Since the disease began spreading like wildfire across the city of Wuhan, social and state media has been flooded with images and stories of overburdened healthcare workers whose lives have been consumed by taking care of a seemingly endless number of the ill.

There is the video of a doctor who, fearing she will infect her husband by being in the same car, walks in the rain to the hospital for her shift at 3am, as he drives slowly behind her to make sure she is safe.

There are the pictures of numerous nurses with deep goggle and face-mask imprints on their faces after wearing them for hours on end, and the tales of big-hearted volunteers who offer free meals to medical workers or ferry them to and from the hospitals.

There are stories of healthcare workers who will not eat, drink or go to the toilet during their shift in order not to compromise their protective suits.

Such anecdotes and optics have done a fine job in galvanising a country traumatised by this sudden outbreak and its government's sweeping draconian measures in response to the virus. It has locked down cities, enforced quarantines and mandated face masks.

President Xi Jinping declared this fight against the spread of the coronavirus a "people's war", vowing to win it, mere months after state media had vowed that there would be another "people's war" at the height of United States-China trade tensions.

Perhaps the state propaganda machinery thought the positive narratives would help turn the tide of public opinion, which soured dramatically following the death from the virus of Dr Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old doctor who was initially silenced by the police after warning of an outbreak late last December.

Local officials and even the country's top leaders have acknowledged their shortcomings in the handling of the crisis in the early days.

Doctors who sounded the alert when the outbreak was still in its early stages were ignored.

"Our management didn't take it seriously. In simple terms, it was an issue of bureaucracy; in deeper terms, it is a problem of human literacy," says a 52-year-old physician who declined to be named.

 
 

Even as the number of infected cases grew, and one man died, the Wuhan mayor still let 40,000 residents gather for a Chinese New Year potluck feast, while the authorities assured people repeatedly that the disease was preventable, controllable and could not be spread through human contact.

When The Straits Times reported from Wuhan on Jan 10, after Hong Kong and Singapore had begun fever screening passengers from the city, residents interviewed thought nothing of the outbreak.

"We trust our government, and if it's serious, they'll be telling us about it and shutting down places, but look, everything is going on normally," said one woman.

It took eminent infectious disease expert Zhong Nanshan's visit to the city in the middle of last month for the facts to finally surface: The virus can spread from human to human, he told reporters on Jan 20. Just as alarming was his revelation that 14 medical workers had been infected by a single carrier.

Doctors had, since the beginning of last month, complained that the screening criteria for patients were too stringent, allowing many cases to fall through the cracks.

Bureaucracy also stood in the way: Confirmation could come only from the national-level Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which slowed the process of identification.

Those problems have since been resolved, but if there had been expectations that China would have learnt valuable lessons from the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) pandemic, it has proven the hopeful wrong on a few counts.

The instinct to cover up, the compulsion to control information, the pattern of scapegoating local officials and a fragmented bureaucratic system plague this viral outbreak as they did the one 17 years ago.

 
 

Local authorities, not wanting to spoil two of their biggest political meetings from Jan 5 to 11, hit the mute button on public information during that window.

Dr Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations who studied China's response to the Sars epidemic, says the Chinese government had, after that crisis, invested in its disease surveillance response capacity and built a Web-based reporting system that would allow grassroots officials to report an unusual disease outbreak to the central authorities.

"Yet, at the local level, the pattern of inaction has not changed," says Dr Huang, who is also a professor at Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations.

In the wake of the Sars outbreak, as many as 1,000 officials were punished; this epidemic has already witnessed the sacking of the Hubei and Wuhan party chiefs, provincial health officials and the disciplining of hundreds of others across the province.

A brief respite that saw Internet users given free rein to criticise these local officials ended when censors returned to work after the Chinese New Year holidays, suspending accounts and scrubbing social media clean.

"You're muzzled in a very blunt way," says 27-year-old postgraduate student Shan He in Beijing. "In fact, everyone has only good intentions, and even criticisms are simply a desire for improvement. But it makes us feel awful when information is constantly being blocked or taken down."

Still, China has been praised by the World Health Organisation for its swift and decisive response to the epidemic. It has also been lauded for having quickly isolated and sequenced the virus, and sharing the information with the international scientific community.

 
 

Three weeks after officials went public with the outbreak, the central government threw its weight behind the battle, launching an all-out campaign to contain its spread.

Thousands of medics poured into Wuhan from various provinces as well as from the People's Liberation Army, carrying with them much-needed supplies and equipment.

Beijing dug deep into its reserves, releasing medical supplies and food stock while importing millions of face masks and protective suits that the country was woefully short of.

Thousands of construction workers toiled night and day to complete two makeshift hospitals with a total of 2,600 beds in 10 days.

The finance ministry has allocated 80.55 billion yuan (S$16 billion) to fighting the epidemic, while the central bank yesterday promised that the country's lenders would tolerate higher levels of bad loans to help businesses hit by the outbreak.

Significantly, even before other countries began barring Chinese passport holders from entry, Beijing took the first step of locking down Wuhan and its surrounding cities. It then banned outbound tour groups, essentially stopping tens of thousands of Chinese from leaving the country and potentially spreading the disease worldwide.

How this epidemic pans out will have implications for President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party's authority.

 

"It could help boost his legitimacy if he fights a victorious war against the virus," says Dr Huang, who cited a survey done after the Sars outbreak that showed increased confidence in the government.

But the impact of this crisis on an already slowing economy will also weigh on the party's legitimacy, an entitlement that is performance-based and rooted in delivering economic growth.


Measures to curb outbreak

QUARANTINES

Wuhan residents are not allowed to leave their neighbourhoods unless it is to see a doctor or be involved in work related to curbing the outbreak.

The city of Xiaogan, one of the worst-hit in Hubei province, on Friday also started disallowing residents from leaving their communities, and arranging for daily necessities to be delivered to them.

Other cities have introduced measures such as allowing one member of a household to go out to buy necessities once every five days.

Beijing on Friday announced that anyone returning to the city would be subject to a 14-day quarantine or face punishment.

 
 

LOCKDOWNS

Wuhan continues to be sealed off, with all public transport suspended and shops shuttered. More than 80 cities around the country have imposed partial lockdowns.

MASKS

Guangdong, Jianxi, Shanghai and Nanjing are among provinces and cities where wearing a face mask in public is mandatory.

GATHERINGS

Beijing banned restaurants from serving groups of more than three diners, while in Sichuan province, famed for its hotpot, dinner gatherings have been barred since Jan 25.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 16, 2020, with the headline 'Keeping the spirit alive as the battle continues'. Print Edition | Subscribe