Not masking truth this time

As new virus spreads, Beijing has learned lessons from its SARS mistakes

Not masking truth this time

Checking for H7N9 flu

Almost 10 years ago to the day, the Chinese government acknowledged what many already suspected: that it had been attempting to hide an outbreak of a previously unseen form of pneumonia that had killed over 90 people and infected thousands.

The date was April 20, 2003 and the disease was to become known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS. Over the next few months 349 mainland Chinese died from the disease and thousands fell sick. By the time the epidemic had been brought under control in July over 800 people around the world were dead.

China was heavily criticised for not reporting the outbreak sooner. Today it finds itself in a similar situation: 10 people have died from a new, seemingly drug-resistant form of bird flu known as H7N9 which has been infecting people in Shanghai and the surrounding provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui.

Yet the government’s reaction has been markedly different this time, leading to claims that it has learnt its lesson from the previous epidemic. “From SARS to H7N9, the government has made huge progress. Information has been easy to get and the government has cooperated with international organisations. We should give a positive judgement. The government learned a lesson and grew up,” one Sina Weibo user called Laojishengya wrote on his account.

Hu Shuli, one of China’s most prominent journalists, also noted the shift, saying:  “The open attitude towards H7N9 is totally different from that of SARS. We can see the progress.”

The Chinese government was deeply embarrassed by the SARS outbreak and the international criticism received as a result of its initial conduct. Since then it has built a state-of-the-art centre for disease control on the outskirts of Beijing and trained hundreds of medical staff on how to monitor and contain similar epidemics.

More confident in their own abilities, the Chinese authorities are now much more inclined to cooperate with international organisations when infections break out. Part of the problem in 2002 – when SARS first appeared – was that the central government was only just building its new reporting system, and so was struggling to get a grip on the magnitude of the outbreak itself.

Xi Jinping won’t want to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors, just as his premier Li Keqiang will wish to avoid another healthcare scandal like the one that tainted his time as governor of Henan (when a government-backed blood donation programme saw thousands of people contract HIV).

In a sign of the authorities’ eagerness to be seen to be taking the situation seriously, Xinhua reported earlier this week that Vice Premier Liu Yandong even made a personal trip to the Chinese Centre for Disease Control in Beijing. She praised the country’s improved response to the public health threat.

But the lesson from the fallout of the botched handling of SARS is not enough to explain the change in tactics. After all, in 2008 when melamine-laced milk powder started killing infants by the dozen, the official reaction was once again to cover it up – meaning tins of infected formula stayed in shops.

The biggest single difference between now and 2003, it might be argued, is the explosion in social networking and microblogging sites. With over half a billion users, platforms like Sina Weibo and WeChat mean it is much harder for information to be held back or suppressed. True, such sites are censored but if a user is careful to avoid banned terminology, sensitive information can be relayed for crucial periods before the censors spot it.  Sometimes this is only for a matter of a few minutes but that can often be enough for a message to take on a life of its own. Take, for example, the case of a hospital administrator in Nanjing who posted the medical records of a woman suffering from H7N9 because the authorities had not announced the case. The original message was soon removed but the image had already been forwarded. Later the local health department confirmed that the woman, a poultry seller, was suffering from the disease.

“I remember 10 years ago my father called me to say there was a disease in Guangdong and everybody was buying vinegar [there was rumour that vinegar killed the virus]. Only one month later did we get information about SARS on the TV. Now we can get information about H7N9 quickly through the internet. The country is improving,” another weibo user wrote.

Less ready to praise, mind you, is The New York Times which criticises delays in disclosing the virus. The first case emerged on February 19, the US paper says, and yet was not publicly announced till March 31.

That said, the broader question remains: how bad will it get? The number of confirmed cases has now reached 38, but there still hasn’t been any evidence of transmission between humans. And in a welcome sign the Shanghai Daily reported on Thursday that a local boy had become the first to recover from the new strain of bird flu. The infant, aged three years and seven months, left hospital in a stable condition this week. “His recovery proves the disease is curable,” hospital officials told the Shanghai Daily.

Amid such indications of hope, Premier Li Keqiang said the outbreak was under control. “Overall, the outbreak is at a stage where it can be prevented and contained,” Li told CCTV.

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