As worldwide coronavirus cases reach the one million mark, China seems to be containing the virus effectively. Daily updates show little to no cases or deaths in the country. This shows huge progress considering the fact that the virus was first reported in China last December 2019. Worldometers.info indicates that current coronavirus cases in the country are at 81,740 with a death toll of 3,331 and total recoveries of 77,167. As of now, they are only handling 1,242 active cases.
Little to No Cases Reported
Compared with countries that report a huge number of coronavirus cases and deaths every day such as the US, Spain, Italy, and France, China is doing pretty well. Recently, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China for the "speed with which [it] detected the outbreak" and its "commitment to transparency.” According to Time, an American weekly news magazine and news website, many experts said that the measures Beijing implemented to contain the virus worked.
“China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic,” said a report written by health experts who traveled to the epicenter of the outbreak to study the coronavirus response for the WHO.
Experts say that China’s progress in containing the virus is mainly due to the measures they implemented. For instance, Chinese authorities cut all transport into and out of Wuhan, a central Chinese city of 11 million people where the virus is believed to have originated, during the last week of January. The government ordered people to stay home unless they needed to buy groceries or seek medical care; private vehicles were banned, and schools, offices, and factories were shut down.
After a few days, the lockdown had expanded to cover several other cities in China, which is home to over 60 million people. This lockdown is believed to be the largest quasi-quarantine in human history. But, it doesn’t end there. Over the next few weeks, the Chinese government implemented lockdowns in public spaces and enacted social controls on the private movement of residents. Checkpoints have become more visible as well. In Wuhan, police were deployed to ensure citizens complied with the lockdown.
WHO experts said that the lockdown of Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province “effectively prevented further exportation of infected individuals to the rest of the country.” While all of these measures seem harmless, many authorities from across the world are skeptical about these. Some are even questioning if China’s narrative on the pandemic can be trusted.
China’s Draconian Measures
Trust issues against the official number of coronavirus cases in China are valid given its bad reputation when it comes to providing official updates. For instance, China was heavily criticized back in 2003 for withholding information about the SARS virus, a respiratory disease that evolved from infecting animals to infecting humans like COVID-19. Eventually, SARS infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774. According to Vox, a liberal-leaning American news and opinion website owned by Vox Media, reports recently emerged claiming China had delayed reporting the pandemic again, and that the country downplayed and covered up what they knew.
Thus, experts suggest that China’s actions early on may have postponed the global response to a deadly pathogen and allowed it to spread further. Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that a January 29 report in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that there were already health care workers infected in early January. “But the public was not kept informed about this situation until January 18. People were still told there was no strong evidence of human-to-human transmission,” she said.
Many international organizations attributed China’s low number of coronavirus cases to its draconian measures, which refers to laws or rules that are harsh and repressive. Reports show that the government has silenced doctors who want to warn the world about the virus, closed down online discussions about it, and detained people who criticize the government’s handling of the pandemic. A Chinese Twitter user wrote that many of those who died due to the virus “will not even be numbers” because of censorship, and that “the only thing left is the agonizing cry of their family.”
According to Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization focused on human rights, the Chinese authorities are controlling the news narrative and stifling negative coverage, which has continued to drive censorship of sometimes legitimate information about the virus. “The Chinese authorities risk withholding information that could help the medical community tackle the coronavirus and help people protect themselves from being exposed to it. The fact that some of this information is not available to everyone increases the risk of harm from the coronavirus and delays an effective response,” Nicholas Bequelin, Regional Director at Amnesty International, said.
Reports also show that many Chinese have faced harassment or sanctions for speaking out about public dangers. For instance, Chen Quishi, a Chinese human rights lawyer, was taken away on February 7 and apparently "put under quarantine" for 24 days. He was well known for his coverage of the Hong Kong protests as well as the coronavirus outbreak. Fang Bin, a businessman from Wuhan, also disappeared in February for sharing information about the pandemic.
"Quarantine becomes arbitrary detention when there is no doubt or legal reason a person is forced to be in a particular place and not allowed to apply for judicial review," Ford Liao, professor of law at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, said.
According to Aljazeera, an English language website for Aljazeera Magazine, Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, also said that the Chinese government is not providing people with the information they need to help them in this crisis. She added that Chinese officials have defaulted to past practice: "covering up worrying information and going after whistleblowers rather than swiftly providing accurate information to allow people to make decisions that could help efficiently limit the spread of the virus.”
“Censorship, discrimination and arbitrary detention have no place in the fight against the coronavirus epidemic. Human rights violations hinder, rather than facilitate, responses to public health emergencies, and undercut their efficiency,” Bequelin emphasized.