Outbreak diary: China lost crucial days, weeks in the fight against the Coronavirus

By the time Wuhan – and a dozen more cities soon after – was locked down on January 23, the virus had pretty much broken lose.
Medical officers spray Indonesian nationals with antiseptic after they arrived from Wuhan, China center of the coronavirus epidemic, before transferring them to the Natuna Islands military base to be quarantined, at Hang Nadim Airport in Batam.(REUTERS)
Medical officers spray Indonesian nationals with antiseptic after they arrived from Wuhan, China center of the coronavirus epidemic, before transferring them to the Natuna Islands military base to be quarantined, at Hang Nadim Airport in Batam.(REUTERS)
Updated on Feb 03, 2020 03:45 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Beijing | BySutirtho Patranobis

It is increasingly clear from new information available and stories appearing in Chinese local and social media that China lost crucial days and weeks in early January in containing the pathogen.

A month later, it has gone on to trigger an international public health emergency.

The question is whether the delay was caused by apathy or by a deliberate decision to keep the spreading outbreak a secret: Alarm and panic should never come in the way of social stability and harmony.

It was possibly a mix of reasons that stopped authorities from immediately pressing the alarm bell: Local authorities didn’t realise how serious the situation was about to become or they were reluctant to admit to themselves – even after local doctors alerted them – how serious the situation was about to become.

An important government conclave was coming up in the middle of January in Wuhan and instead of alerting the unsuspecting citizens about a deadly virus in their midst, local authorities continued as if all was well.

And, all remained well despite a death and dozens of cases right into the third week of January; for about a week in the middle of the month, no new cases were reported and rumours churned facts into fiction about a strange, new disease in town.

As the Washington Post pointed out, even after Coronavirus cases were reported in Thailand and South Korea, Wuhan officials organised a downtown community potluck attended by as many as 40,000 families to spread the cheer of the upcoming Lunar New Year (LNY).

We can only imagine what else the potluck spread as children, men and women freely mingled in the potluck.

By the time Wuhan – and a dozen more cities soon after – was locked down on January 23, the virus had pretty much broken lose.

The first cluster of cases of the previously unknown virus first appeared in December in Wuhan.

Local experts were immediately alerted because of its new and virulent nature; it was also clear to the first doctors who treated the patients with the mysterious, new pneumonia that it was infectious as members of the same family were falling ill.

It took just a day to two for the information about the disease to reach the top of the local government hierarchy: By January 1, the seafood market to which most initial cases were linked was shut down.

It took nearly a month for Zhou Xianwang, Wuhan’s mayor, to say that the speed with which information was shared with the public was “not good enough” and blamed the information system as he wasn’t authorised to disclose the information.

We will never know who was actually authorised to disclose the information to the 11 million citizens of Wuhan and thousands of foreigners who stay there.

What we will know – for days and weeks to come – is the daily toll the disease will take. Or will we?

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