Eric Vandenbroeck 30 Jan. 2020

First of all, from what we know today it is likely that the virus will indeed become a pandemic whereby public health services can help determine how severe it will turn out to be.

Our evaluation of any infectious disease is based on two factors: How fast and easily it transmits, and how serious it is. At the moment the 2019-nCoV coronavirus outbreak so far is not as lethal as either SARS or the currently simmering Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) on the Arabian Peninsula. Yet this variant is packing a vicious punch and unlike SARS or MERS, is spreading far and wide, acting like an influenza virus in terms of transmission between people, quickly and efficiently traveling through the air. Viruses don’t change when crossing political borders, so we can expect this one to continue behaving as they did in China. Nothing any government can do will effectively stop its spread.

World Health Organization officials said Thursday (30 Jan.) morning in China that the coronavirus death toll has climbed to 170, and more than 7,700 cases have been reported worldwide.

And whilst as mentioned above early indications so far show it is not as deadly as SARS, the coronavirus that emerged in China in 2002, it’s spread has certainly matched the growth of the SARS outbreak.

The reason why the new infectious disease is so alarming is as tens of cases become hundreds and hundreds become thousands, the mathematics run away with you, conjuring speculation about a health-care collapse, social and economic upheaval, and a deadly pandemic. The other is profound uncertainty. Sparse data and conflicting reports mean that scientists cannot rule out the worst case, and that lets wrong information thrive.

So far, we know the disease has taken hold in China and there is a high risk that it spreads around the world; it may even become a recurrent seasonal infection. It may turn out to be no more lethal than seasonal influenza, but that would still count as dangerous in the short term that would hit the world economy and, depending on how the outbreak is handled, it could, as we will see underneath, also have political effects in china.

The most significant uncertainty is how many cases have gone unrecorded.  Modeling by academics in Hong Kong suggests that tens of thousands of people have already been infected and that the epidemic will peak in a few months’ time. if so, the virus is more widespread than thought, and hence will be harder to contain, but it will also prove less lethal, because the number of deaths should be measured against a much broader base of infections. As with the flu, a lot of people could die nonetheless.

Scientists have started work on vaccines and on treatments to make infections less severe, but these are six to 12 months away, so the world must fall back on public-health measures. in china that has led to the biggest quarantine in history, as Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province have been sealed off. the impact of such draconian measures has rippled throughout china. the spring holiday has been extended, keeping schools and businesses closed. the economy is running on the home-delivery of food and goods.

Many experts praise china’s efforts. Certainly, its scientists have coped better with the Wuhan virus than they did with Sar's in 2003, rapidly detecting it, sequencing its genome, licensing diagnostic kits, and informing international bodies. China’s politicians come off less well. They left alone the crowded markets filled with wild animals that spawned Sar's. With the new virus, local officials in Wuhan first played down the science and then, when the disease had taken hold, enacted the draconian quarantine fully eight hours after announcing it, allowing perhaps 1m potentially infectious people to leave the city first.

That may have undermined a measure which is taking a substantial toll. China’s growth in the first quarter could fall to as little as 2%, from 6% before the outbreak. As China accounts for almost a fifth of world output, there will probably be a noticeable dent on global growth. Though the economy will bounce back when the virus fades, the reputation of the communist party and even of Xi Jinping may be more lastingly affected. The party claims that armed with science, it is more efficient at governing than democracies. The heavy-handed failure to contain the virus suggests otherwise.


The “people’s leader”

If censors in communist-led regimes are good for anything, it is spurring creativity. With a new coronavirus stalking china, netizens have been heaping praise on “Chernobyl”, an American-made television drama about the soviet union’s worst nuclear disaster. Their aim is to sneak discussion of the outbreak onto china’s tightly policed internet. In less hectic times, censors would swiftly stamp out such impertinence. For the parallels with the reactor explosion in 1986, and the official cover-up that followed, are painful for china’s communist party bosses, whose system of government was cribbed from soviet designs. But pointed comparisons keep popping up on china’s social media. One urges Chinese viewers to learn from “Chernobyl” that a free flow of information offers more security than aircraft-carriers, moon landings, and other signs of superpower might. Another contrasts a soothing interview granted to state television by the governor of Hubei, the province where the epidemic began, with a speech by the hero of “Chernobyl”, a soviet scientist, about the costs of official lies.

Parallels are likely to continue in the real world. Back in the 1980s, kremlin leaders scapegoated local officials and engineers, coolly blaming them for the disaster and denying a more extensive cover-up. In recent days, Chinese state media have dropped heavy hints that the mayor of Wuhan, the industrial city where the virus was first detected, will lose his job. When Li Keqiang, china’s prime minister, was appointed to oversee virus-control work, cynics suggested that his role was to take the fall should the outbreak spark a pandemic, in effect, to protect the president xi Jinping.

As it happens, censors should be relieved that Chinese netizens are focusing on the ills of soviet collective leadership. it would be more dangerous if online critics were to start exploring a historical parallel closer to home, namely the way that in Chinese history natural disasters undermined an emperor’s claim to rule. More than one dynasty fell after catastrophes signaled that heaven had withdrawn its favor. It was not only seen as ineptitude when a ruler was unable to protect his people from floods or famine, or, as in the second century during the Han dynasty, from repeated outbreaks of disease (probably smallpox and measles) that killed perhaps a third of the population. Such bungling showed that the emperor lacked virtue and deserved to be overthrown, people said.

Modern-day Chinese may not believe that a rampaging coronavirus signals divine anger with Xi. still, the party chief has a great deal at stake in this crisis, precisely because broad claims are made about his wisdom, which is now taught in schools and studied by party members as xi Jinping thought. Every day, state media credit Xi with personally guiding china to ever-greater prosperity, modernity, and global clout. No leader has amassed such individual power since Mao Zedong or been so lavishly praised. Chinese intellectuals accuse Xi of claiming the mantle of an emperor. They point to xi’s speeches praising traditional Asian culture and lauding codes of morality and deference to imperial authority, as handed down by Confucius and other sages.

The result is an awkward hybrid. On the one hand, officials make claims about the efficiency of collective party leadership that would be familiar to any soviet apparatchik. To them, populist insurgencies sweeping the west are proof that multiparty elections, a free press, and other forms of democratic accountability are sources of chaos and dysfunction. As they describe it, china’s system is a meritocracy that selects highly competent experts to run the country, with a track record of correcting their own mistakes. Yet at the same time, the party’s propagandists lay claim to a very different form of legitimacy, involving the people’s love for and trust in one man, xi. so sweeping is their praise of him that it leaves essentially no room for the idea that xi could make a serious mistake.

This convoluted claim to legitimacy can be heard in the context of the current coronavirus outbreak, as leaders insist that their system of government is ideally suited to tackling the disease. On 28 January  Chinese leaders hosted the head of the world health organization (who), a un body that played an invaluable role in demanding transparency in 2003 after china’s initial cover-up of the extent of an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (sars), which led to many avoidable deaths. Wang Yi, the foreign minister, assured the who’s boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that china would be more resolute this time thanks to “the strong leadership of the party central committee with comrade xi jinping as the core and the strong advantages of the socialist system”, as well as its experience of sars.

It is too simplistic to assume that all bad things that happen in china must harm xi. the virus outbreak could end swiftly, amid worldwide praise for the bravery of china’s doctors and nurses, the self-discipline of the public, and the resolve of Chinese leaders, albeit after a slow start. If the crisis does not end well, scapegoats will be found, and underlings punished. That alone would not have to shake xi’s authority, which can always be shored up with repression, still greater ideological discipline, and nationalist propaganda. But a botched response to the virus would lay bare tensions inherent in the party’s hybrid claims to legitimacy.

Xi’s china is two things at once. It is a secretive, techno-authoritarian one-party state, ruled by grey men in unaccountable councils and secretive committees. It also claims to be a nation-sized family headed by a patriarch of unique wisdom and virtue, in a secular, 21st-century version of the mandate of heaven. If forced to choose between those competing models, bet on cold, bureaucratic control to win out. For Xi and his team learned their lesson from the soviet union’s fall, five years after the Chernobyl disaster. Expressions of public love for Xi, the “people’s leader,” are all very well. But keeping power is what counts.


Chinese abroad unfairly countered with the "yellow peril" narrative

In the past two days, the hashtag #jenesuispasunvirus, "I am not a virus" in French, trended on Twitter as thousands of ethnically Asian internet users spoke out against the surge in discrimination.

Airlines halt flights from China. Schools in Europe uninvite exchange students. Restaurants in South Korea turn away Chinese customers.

As a deadly virus spreads beyond China, governments, businesses and educational institutions are struggling to find the right response. Safeguarding public health is a priority. How to do that without stigmatizing the entire population of the country where the outbreak began, and where nearly a fifth of all humans reside, is a challenge. French regional newspaper Courrier Picard sparked outrage with its headline "Yellow Alert" on a front-page story about the coronavirus. The paper apologized to readers who took to Twitter to condemn the allusion to "Yellow Peril," a xenophobic term referring to the peoples of East Asia that dates to the 19th century. In Denmark, the Chinese Embassy called on the country's Jyllands-Posten newspaper to apologize for an editorial cartoon that depicts China's flag with virus symbols instead of stars on a red background.


Disinformation spread

When reports of a new coronavirus emerged within a week or so a theory would be circulating that coronavirus was a new kind of “snake flu”– mostly because it’s unlikely the virus originated in snakes, and it’s not flu.

So where did the snakes come from? The culprit was a widely shared scientific paper, which speculated that the new virus had genetic characteristics and implicated snakes as the source. Leading geneticists were quick to point out that the results weren’t convincing, and that bats were still the likely suspects. However, that didn’t stop snake flu from going viral. Other misinformation about coronavirus has rippled across the internet in recent weeks. From claims the virus is part-HIV to conspiracy theories about bioweapons and reports suggesting the virus was linked to people eating bat soup, stories sparking fear seem to have overtaken the outbreak in real life.

To fully explain how viral content – and viruses – spread, we need to move away from the idea that outbreaks involve simple clockwork infections, passing along a chain from person to person to person until large numbers have been exposed. During the 2015 outbreak of the Mers coronavirus in South Korea, 82 out of 186 infections came from a single “superspreading event” in a hospital where an infected person was being treated. It’s not yet clear how common such superspreading is in the current outbreak, but we do know that these kinds of events are how information goes viral online; most outbreaks on Twitter are dominated by a handful of individuals or media outlets, which are responsible for a large proportion of transmission. If you heard about snake flu, you might have told a couple of friends; meanwhile, newspaper headlines were telling millions.

Ensuring the public has the best possible health information is crucial during an outbreak. At best, misinformation can distract from important messages. At worst, it can lead to behaviour that amplifies disease transmission. The novelty of coronavirus makes the challenge even greater, because viral speculation can easily overwhelm the limited information we do have.

Not to mention that while it might soon reach the capital cities of all 'regions' there are many 'places' in China's rural areas where the coronavirus will not reach...


Linguistic diversity in the various regions of China:


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