China Brief

How Is China Handling the Wuhan Virus Outbreak?

Chinese officials have extended the Lunar New Year holiday and started building emergency hospitals to combat the new coronavirus. Will it work?

A courier delivers supplies to the Wuhan Union Hospital on Jan. 29 in Wuhan, China.
A courier delivers supplies to the Wuhan Union Hospital on Jan. 29 in Wuhan, China. Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: Chinese officials put emergency measures against the Wuhan virus outbreak into place, Hong Kong’s protests simmer amid fears of contagion, and how the prolonged crisis is bad for the Chinese economy.

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Are China’s Emergency Measures Working?

The effects of the Wuhan coronavirus are cascading through China. As of Wednesday morning, Chinese officials had confirmed [link in Chinese] 6,095 cases, over 9,000 suspected cases, and 132 deaths. The figures are likely an understatement: Researchers in Hong Kong estimate that 44,000 people are already infected in Wuhan alone. A large part of Hubei, the central Chinese province where the epidemic started, is now quarantined. Every Chinese city has taken precautionary measures, and no province or region remains untouched by the virus.

Cases have now been reported in numerous foreign countries, including underdeveloped ones such as Cambodia. That’s a particular concern, because detection in countries with weak medical infrastructure is difficult, increasing the potential for further outbreaks. Elsewhere, cases have so far been detected and contained, but major outbreaks seem likely in more Chinese cities. Many international airlines are suspending some flights to China, out of concern for safety and business. Wider travel bans seem likely.


Holiday extension. China’s Lunar New Year holiday period was set to end tomorrow, but it is officially extended to Feb. 3. It seems likely that further extensions will be put in place as authorities struggle with the potential impact of hundreds of millions of people heading home. But the Chinese economy, already facing a serious hit from the virus, needs its workers back in factories and offices. The state put out a notice that workers must be paid throughout the extended holiday, but those who operate on a piecework basis or who switch jobs in the new year, as is common, will be hurting.

Emergency measures. It’s still hard to judge how the Chinese government is handling the crisis. People are concerned about food shortages, but they haven’t materialized. One major concern is the lack of diagnostic kits and medics on the front lines in Wuhan, which may be delaying diagnosis. Chinese media has emphasized the construction of emergency hospitals, including some fake photographs. In reality, the hospitals, constructed by the military, will use prefabricated modules in the style of army field hospitals. Personnel and sanitation plans for the hospitals remain unclear.

Barriers and prejudice. There are reports of villages sealing themselves off against the virus by putting up barricades and turning away strangers. Travelers from Wuhan or people with Hubei identity cards are being put into improvised quarantine facilities, often without medical supervision. Villages designated as official quarantine sites, in turn, are clashing with police. In the cities, temperature checks have become routine, with people turned away from hotels, restaurants, or other public sites.

Good news? It’s still early, but the mortality rate of the Wuhan virus appears relatively low. While a big concern was that people could be infectious while asymptomatic, scientists now say that is speculative. Moreover, people with very mild infections of the virus may not even know they are symptomatic. The infection rate for children is very low, as Annie Sparrow explains in FP, suggesting that certain vaccines may provide greater immunity.


What We’re Following

Hong Kong simmers. Virus fears are keeping people away from street protests in Hong Kong, but the outbreak has dealt yet another blow to the city government’s credibility. Some border crossings with mainland China are now closed, but Chief Executive Carrie Lam is under fire for not acting earlier. (Practically speaking, it’s hard to imagine how Hong Kong could isolate itself from Shenzhen, its mainland sister city, without taking extreme measures.) Virus fears have also bought out prejudices, with restaurants turning away Mandarin speakers, for example. A planned quarantine site was vandalized by protesters over the weekend.

Hong Kong residents fear a recession would follow an outbreak, as with SARS in 2003. With reduced tourism due to the unrest, the city is already facing bleak 2020 financially.

China’s cover-up. In an essay for the China Media Project, a Wuhan journalist using a pseudonym describes how the new coronavirus was initially played down by the government. The instincts of the party-state under President Xi Jinping are to conceal information from the public. Even without deliberate conspiracy, it’s easy to see how knowledge of the crisis could be covered up. That raises the question: How much is still obscured?

A cursed year. Retired NBA star Kobe Bryant’s death on Sunday brought many Chinese fans to tears. Bryant was a hero in China, where he committed himself to public service work and was an enthusiastic friend to his Chinese fans. He bridged the gap between Chinese basketball—popular for over a century—and the modern NBA. Some on the Chinese internet took the basketball player’s death as another imminent sign—in addition to the Wuhan virus—of the end of the world.


Tech and Business

Box-office zero. Lunar New Year is usually a bonanza for the Chinese box office, with major movie releases timed to coincide with the holiday period. That’s a bust this year: Cinemas have closed across the country, and the release of potential blockbusters has been delayed—with some going straight to streaming platforms. The crisis is a blow to studios that counted on the holiday revenue, and there’s no sign of when people will again feel comfortable congregating in public. Other forms of entertainment also face potentially devastating losses, from Shanghai’s Disneyland (closed) to the numerous small restaurants that depended on the New Year holiday for a significant part of their annual earnings.

U.S.-China trade deal in peril. The U.S. commerce secretary’s potential trip to confirm the details of the phase one trade agreement between the United States and China has been called off due to the Wuhan virus. The outbreak may cause China serious problems in keeping its agreement to purchase $200 billion of U.S. agricultural products. There is a natural disasters clause in the agreement, but it’s not clear if the Trump administration will be inclined toward understanding or generosity.

Supply chain fears. The extended holiday and countrywide travel restrictions are likely to cause some productivity issues for Chinese manufacturing. Western firms accounted for the usual Lunar New Year shutdown, but they haven’t made provisions for large-scale disruption. Some municipalities have already extended the holiday to Feb. 9, and that might not be the end of it. Plus, fears of migrant workers, especially those from Hubei, are growing. The trade war has already pushed some industries to find suppliers outside China, but many others are likely to be hit by the effects of the Wuhan virus.


What We’re Reading

Her Uighur Parents Were Model Chinese Citizens. It Didn’t Matter,” by Sarah A. Topol, the New York Times Magazine

This deeply moving piece in the New York Times Magazine follows the endeavors of Zulhumar Isaac, a successful young Uighur woman, to find her parents after they were seized by the Chinese state in Xinjiang. (Also listen also to Zulhumar’s interview on FP’s First Person podcast from March 2019, and read another Uighur’s testimony here.)


A Moment in History

The Henan Refugee Crisis (1938-1945)

There are plenty of forms of prejudice in China, including discrimination against ethnic minorities and the shaming of unmarried women. But one of the most persistent in modern times is the bizarre contempt for the Henanese, the inhabitants of China’s most populous province and the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization—widely derided as cheats and liars.

So where does this bias come from? The answer is tragically simple: The Henanese were the main victims of China’s wartime disasters, including the decision to break the dam of the Yellow River in 1938 to slow the Imperial Japanese Army, which resulted in over 1 million deaths. The flood and the Japanese invasion caused a refugee crisis, with desperate Henanese fleeing to other regions and forming communities. Some still exist today, as does the bias against them. Read Micah Muscolino’s The Ecology of War in China for more.


That’s it for this week.

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James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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