Wuhan virus: China faces social media backlash over new virus outbreak

Subway passengers wear protective masks in Beijing, on Jan 21, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Hundreds of millions of Chinese Web users have been furiously discussing the outbreak of a new deadly virus that has killed six people and infected hundreds.

Posts on the infection spreading to medical staff - a development that marks a new phase of severity for the outbreak - were viewed more than a billion times on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like service, while a Beijing News editorial calling for a transparent system of information updates got more than 100,000 views on WeChat, the country's most popular messaging app.

The Chinese government is treading a delicate line between maintaining stability and educating the public about the virus ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday that starts on Friday (Jan 24).

Citizens are set to take some three billion trips across the country, an annual migration that is likely to accelerate the outbreak as people exchange germs in packed trains and planes.

The stakes are also global, as it became clear on Tuesday when the United States confirmed its own first case of the illness in a person who had recently travelled in China.

During the Sars outbreak 17 years ago, social media platforms did not exist to spread awareness and knowledge of preventive measures, like wearing masks and washing hands regularly while travelling. But unfettered online discussion also runs the risk of fanning criticism of Chinese officials.

Users on Weibo and WeChat complained about a lack of fresh information and questioned why the authorities didn't tell the public earlier about the pathogen spreading between humans.

Some posts speculating about unverified cases and linking to foreign media coverage were removed, said associate professor Fu King-wa at Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

But there seemed to be no major censorship effort on the two platforms on Tuesday.

"In 2020, it's different than 2003 with Sars. There was no Weibo, no WeChat," said Prof Fu. "Now, we can imagine that no matter if they're true or false, these messages will spread very fast. This kind of information, it's impossible to control."

Most of the criticism on Weibo and WeChat focused on Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus originated. Officials initially reacted to the social media flurry by cracking down on those they accused of spreading rumours: local police said on Jan 1 they investigated and penalised eight people who allegedly spread misinformation.

In 2003, Sars killed 800 people across Asia, and China's delay in sharing information was blamed for allowing the disease to spread unchecked, fuelling a mistrust of public health authorities that lingers today.

"People don't realise how serious this outbreak is because the local government wasn't transparent enough," said one user on Weibo.

The Beijing News editorial that went viral demanded that Wuhan officials "start offering better explanations" so that those responsible for the outbreak can be held accountable.

"There are criticisms in China's social media about how clumsy the local government in Wuhan has been in handling the issue," said Prof Zha Daojiong at Peking University's School of International Studies.

"But the more pertinent point ought to be some health education aimed at educating the general public, because self-help is perhaps the first line of defence."

Social media users do appear to be using the platforms to find information to protect themselves from the virus.

Phrases related to the virus were among the most-searched on Weibo, though the service briefly promoted "President Xi Jinping's New Year's Greetings" above those trending topics.

Some users took a lighter approach. A series of memes that went viral proposed creative alternatives to gloves and face masks which are selling out across the country, suggesting that people use condoms to cover their fingers and bras to protect their mouths.

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