The coronavirus reveals China’s weakness in handling public health crises

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In two months, the new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China has spread to every province of China and at least 23 countries around the world, killing over 200 people and infected over 17,000

Journalists, scholars, and public health experts both in and out of China have pointed to the lack of data and public communication in the initial and critical stage of the virus’s spread. 

By late January, amid international pressure, the Chinese government took drastic measures to contain the virus, including building a hospital in 10 days and putting a city of 11 million people, and later an entire province, under an effective quarantine. The World Health Organization praised and congratulated China for its swift response and transparency. 

But for nearly a month after the first documented case, the local government kept the public in the dark: authorities kept the official number of confirmed cases low; briefly detained multiple doctors for spreading “rumors” about a new SARS-like outbreak, and insisted there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission even as hospitals in Wuhan overflowed with fever patients.

This pattern of initial downplay by local authorities and draconian interventions from the central government is a familiar one. In 2019, a deadly pig virus called African swine fever started out as a local problem but eventually ballooned into a national crisis and a global threat. During the 2003 SARS epidemic, China was accused of hiding critical information and exacerbating the spread of the virus.

So why does China seem to make the same mistake over and over even though the state shares the same goal as the international community in addressing public health crises?  This special episode of Because China dives deep into why China keeps failing at identifying emerging problems and communicating critical public health information. The problem is baked into the way China’s bureaucratic structure is set up. 

If you like this story, check out Quartz’s ongoing series Because China, about how China is reshaping our world.