Many believe the Coronavirus is just another flu and will be contained quickly like Ebola and SARS. However, it is already clear that China has never dealt with a global health emergency of this size. The current lockdown of over 700 million people in regions all around China has never occurred before in the history of humanity. The second order effects of the coronavirus are even more devastating that the virus itself. These effects are already starting to appear and they will test the fragility of the centralization of power in China.
The economic effects of the Coronavirus are immediately obvious. People are less able to gather and go shopping and enjoy public entertainment and some are not even allowed to go to work. In some cities, each household may only have one member go out three times a week to purchase groceries. In others, no one is allowed outside except for volunteers who run errands and fetch groceries. Regions are also imposing higher health standards for factories that reopen such as protection equipment, containment rooms and disinfection showers. These take time to implement and slow down productivity. A single infection can shut down all work and force all employees into a 14 day quarantine. Meanwhile, many of these factories employ migrant workers, many who went home to places in Hubei province for the new year. They will have to endure a 14 day quarantine before they are allowed back to work. There are thousands of containers of frozen pork, chicken and beef piling up at some major Chinese ports as transport disruptions and labor shortages slow operations. In addition, drivers carrying supplies and finished goods must deal with both roadblocks and quarantines as they go from region to region. These separate quarantines add up and can add months of delays to factories that are looking to ramp back up to full production.
China has low public health standards compared to other developed nations. As a consequence, many doctors and nurses are getting infected from the patients they are treating. Hospitals in the epicenter of Hubei were initially unable to accomodate the rising number of patients. Many infected were quarantined within their own houses. However, this caused them to infect many of their family members. Next, field hospitals were built to house those with mild infections. This has led to fears of cross-infection as only small barriers separate the patients. Construction standards also play a role. They are jokingly called “chabuduo” meaning “almost”. Some bathrooms are built with a lack of P pipes, which trap water within them to keep gases from leaking into rooms. There is evidence that the Coronavirus may transmit through fecal matter and this may cause entire buildings of people to infect each other. The famous hospital that was built in twelve days is already leaking from a recent rainshower. On top of all of this, some patients who are suffering from other diseases are unable to enter the busy hospitals and succumb to their diseases. As the coronavirus strains the health system, it is exposing the general public health issues that exist within China.
Social stability is the bedrock of the Chinese Communist Party doctrine. The central government has even argued that it must be put ahead of human rights for the good of the country and has it linked it to their mandate to rule. The central government determines how well individual cities are doing and which official’s career gets to advance. This leads to competition between cities and pressure to report better data rather than the truth. The central government has been pressuring local governments to relax restrictions and allow people to get back to work. On February 3, Xi announced that quarantine measures had gone too far. However, a few days later, even more restrictive measures were put in place in many areas. Local governments are now involved in a game of politics to appear competent and reduce infection numbers. This has led to situations such as stealing the masks from shipments requested by other governments that pass through the region. It has also led to bizarre situations such as a press conference where female nurses tearfully shaved their heads before going to the epicenter (perhaps for hygene but not many other nurses are doing it). It is more likely a public relations effort gone wrong. Individuals are even assaulting each other in the name of epidemic control.
Many Chinese recognize the need for social stability and understand that official government figures of the number of infections and deaths may be lower than the truth to calm the populace. Unfortunately, this leads to distrust of other announcements. The sudden announcement of mass quarantines suggests a much more dire situation and these measures may be difficult to walk back. It is difficult to mobilize large groups of people when they do not fully trust you. Even after the outbreak is contained, many may still stay home as a precaution, putting further strain on the country’s economic situation.
In conclusion, the Coronavirus is not just another flu. The current pandemic will have far reaching consequences and permanently change the perception of and trust in China. It is impossible to generalize an entire country with a few specific situations. However, in the absence of reliable data, these examples provide the best context to explain why the Coronavirus and subsequent lockdown of over 700 million people will have severe consequences. It is generally difficult to get accurate data from the government and recently, they have further ramped up propaganda efforts. This is compounded by the fact that the forced quarantines make it difficult for anyone to confirm alternative data sources. In addition, these are only the immediate second-order consequences. If the Coronavirus stopped spreading tomorrow and all patients became healthy, these consequences would still continue to occur. Official numbers point to decreasing growth rate of infected outside of the epicenter, Hubei province, but these numbers are widely mistrusted. A new wave of infections is always possible. In February 2003 during the SARS crisis, Chinese officials said that the epidemic had infected about 300 people but was petering out. Later, they admitted that by the end of February it had infected at least 806 people, causing 34 deaths. It is now February of 2020 and the Chinese government is now claiming that infections are declining. We can hope for the best but we must prepare for the worst.