Chinese state media confirmed on Friday that the coronavirus, spreading from the city of Wuhan, has now infected 29 of China’s 31 provinces, a concession critics will likely take as confirmation that the Chinese government has not been honest about how rapidly the disease is spreading.
Increasingly draconian measures taken abruptly to combat the virus, such as effectively quarantining Wuhan and several other cities, convey the impression of a crisis that is much more serious than Beijing wanted to admit.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) media claim there have only been 895 confirmed cases of infection and 26 deaths, but these sources now admit the infection has spread across the mainland, and some of the reported deaths have occurred far beyond the Wuhan epicenter of the epidemic.
Furthermore, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Friday quoted sources who said the Chinese government is still dramatically under-reporting the number of doctors and nurses who have contracted the virus while treating patients.
As of Friday, Beijing officially stopped treating the Wuhan virus like a minor problem it had well in hand, as the SCMP reported:
In response to the rapidly growing number of infections, China had shut down outbound transport from 13 cities and counties in Hubei by Friday morning, according to China National Radio.
Health officials have warned on nationwide broadcasts that people should avoid traditional family reunions and other public gatherings during the Lunar New Year period that starts on Saturday.
Confirmed cases of the new coronavirus have been found in several Asian countries, as well as the United States. New infections were confirmed on Friday in South Korea and Japan, while Singapore and Vietnam declared their first cases on Thursday. Other places outside mainland China reporting individuals carrying the virus were Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.
Chinese citizens living in the outbreak area describe a health care system completely overwhelmed by coronavirus cases, with hospitals so overcrowded that patients are sent home and told to wait days for treatment.
“There’s not enough staff at the local Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They can’t test all the patients. Some people have begun to panic and want to do the tests immediately, but that’s impossible,” a doctor in Wuhan said, advising patients with mild symptoms to isolate themselves and self-medicate to relieve the burden on treatment centers and minimize the risk of spreading infections by visiting crowded hospitals.
Many Chinese are simply bypassing their government and using social media, especially the Twitter-like Weibo service, to create support groups and exchange information about the outbreak. This, of course, creates the usual danger of social media spreading inaccurate information or inducing panic.
Wuhan and seven nearby cities have been placed under lockdown, creating a scramble at railroad stations and airports to escape before the quarantine went into effect, mixed with complaints that travel from the outbreak area should have been restricted much earlier to keep the virus from spreading. Residents of the quarantine region were reportedly given less than eight hours notice that travel would be suspended, with only two days to go before the normally busy Lunar New Year holiday begins.
Roads into Wuhan have been blocked by the authorities and medical personnel deployed to railroad stations, airports, and toll booths to screen travelers. NPR quoted Wuhan officials describing the situation as a “state of war” as they vowed to “implement wartime measures to resolutely curb the spread of this epidemic.”
“Homes must be segregated, neighbors must be watched,” a committee of local officials said ominously.
The New York Post described soldiers in face masks barricading the entrances to train stations, while doctors in hazmat suits worked on the streets of Wuhan. A Chinese student in Wuhan told the BBC that supermarkets in the city have already been cleaned out and his family only has ten days of food and water stockpiled, while many others caught in the quarantine zone probably have less.
“This year we have a very scary Chinese New Year. People are not going outside because of the virus,” a taxi driver in Wuhan remarked to reporters.
According to Channel News Asia on Friday, the quarantine quickly grew to include “13 cities and a staggering 41 million people,” a population larger than that of Canada. Tourist attractions such as the Forbidden City in Beijing, Disneyland Shanghai, and parts of the Great Wall of China have been shut down and celebrations of Lunar New Year canceled.
Some highly disturbing videos have been circulating on social media, showing everything from people collapsing in the streets of Wuhan to doctors and nurses breaking down under the stress of battling the disease. As is often the case with viral videos, the authenticity of many of these clips cannot be determined and some of the more alarming imagery could be misinterpreted – for example, people collapsing from illness are not necessarily “dropping dead.”
Disturbing speculation also surrounds a major biological laboratory located only 20 miles from the wet market where the Wuhan virus is believed to have begun infecting humans. The darkest theories speculate about a biological weapon escaping from the laboratory or being deliberately inflicted upon the populace, perhaps to create a market for selling cures to the disease. Less conspiratorial chatter about the laboratory asks why its personnel did not do more to contain the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan.
Some international observers and medical experts believe the Wuhan virus is not a deadly epidemic and is not remotely as serious as the SARS outbreak in 2003, which became a major global crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday decided not to declare an international health emergency, although it vowed to monitor the situation carefully.
“Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a CNBC interview on Friday that the Wuhan virus appears to be more contagious than SARS but less severe, especially when treated by better hospitals than the overwhelmed and under-equipped Chinese facilities in the outbreak area.
Gottlieb noted that while cases of Wuhan virus have appeared in other countries, including the United States, the infection does not appear to be spreading anywhere but China. Thus far, the cases intercepted in other countries have all been travelers who contracted the disease while visiting the Wuhan area.
CNBC quoted other experts who said the apparently rapid spread of the virus might actually be due to better testing methods detecting infected persons more quickly than with SARS, creating the appearance of a disease spreading more rapidly when it is actually being detected and treated more swiftly. Also, while severe illnesses and deaths from a viral outbreak are always alarming, the Wuhan virus appears to have a lower mortality rate than the “regular flu” and its associated secondary infections, assuming the Chinese government has not radically understated the number of infections and fatalities.