News analysis

Wuhan virus: Sharp spike in cases in China the result of slow response?

In the space of a week, the reported cases of the new 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.

China has gone from merely warning of there being potentially more cases, to going to 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 China's official 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 the Chinese government realised around the middle of the month that it had a potential pandemic on its hands, there was a sea change in public communications.

Most news outlets like Shanghai's The Paper, nationalist tabloid Global Times and the official Xinhua news agency now have dedicated microsites dealing with updates about the outbreaks, with new information streaming in several times every hour.

Smaller news outlets, including the province's official Communist Party newspaper Hubei Daily, have followed the lead of national media outlets.

In the past week or so, some news websites even had cameras set up in Wuhan hospitals live-streaming frontline medical workers "on the battlefield".

And on Saturday, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself chaired a meeting of the Communist Party's top decision-making body to discuss measures to fight the outbreak.

Scientists at both the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London and the Laboratory for the Modelling of and Socio-technical Systems (MoBS Lab) in Northeastern University in the United States have predicted that the spread of the disease is much wider than reported, with numbers ranging between 4,000 and 12,700.

 
 
 
 

The MRC Centre advises international bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO), while the MoBS Lab has done outbreak modelling during the Zika and Ebola outbreaks.

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, who is head of the Biosecurity Research Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Despite the WHO's decision not to declare the outbreak an emergency of international concern, the epidemic is a "clear and ongoing global health threat", MRC scientists wrote in their latest study published on their website on Saturday (Jan 25).

"It is uncertain at the current time whether it is possible to contain the continuing epidemic within China."

There are suggestions that the initial lack of a robust response led to a cavalier attitude of the Wuhan population.

Many felt doctors were exaggerating a seasonal flu when they asked patients to take precautions such as wearing a mask and avoiding crowded areas, according to an anonymous open letter written by a frontline Wuhan doctor.

"These patients were not given proper quarantine nor medical treatment and they could travel in every corner of the city," he wrote, accusing local health authorities of also not reporting new infections.

This has clearly changed as seen in news pictures and online videos of the dramatic 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 some have said these measures appear draconian, they can be effective in trying to curb the travel-related spread of the virus, said Prof MacIntyre.

"However, (a) lockdown should always be done with care to ensure affected people have adequate supplies of food, medication and other essential supplies," she said.

But it is clear some people still do not recognise the severity of the issue.

In Malaysia, a visiting Chinese couple whose child was suspected of having the virus attempted to evade quarantine.

A Chinese woman who had a fever continued to travel to France, boasting she took medicine to bring her temperature down so she would pass the screening at the airport.

And in Singapore, travelling companions of the Republic's first confirmed case went on to Malaysia at about noon on Jan 23 despite members of their group already 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.

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 to deal with the outbreak.

It appears that Beijing is cognisant of such loopholes and has in recent days set 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.