The novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, Hubei has now killed 426 people (all but one in China) and infected more than 20,000 globally. Much criticism has been levied at the Chinese government for their slow initial response and continued opacity about the outbreak: officials in Wuhan appeared more concerned with politics and “stability maintenance” than with a potential public health emergency, while central authorities have recently been maintaining tight control of the narrative, hushing news that hints at the economic cost of what is now a global health emergency.
Central authorities took charge of the response last week by appointing Premier Li Keqiang head of a new task force, and commentators noted the test that the these efforts would pose on Beijing. Xi Jinping this week made a second public address about the situation to signal a more assertive central government response, warning lower-level cadres against letting “bureaucratism” slow things down. Meanwhile, many experts have pointed to China’s rigid central autocracy as a major cause for the outbreak and its rapid spread. CDC officials have said that Beijing has been slow to allow U.S. health experts to observe or assist. At Foreign Policy, James Palmer highlights that the opacity demonstrated by Wuhan officials is the status quo in Xi’s China. At Vox, Yanzhong Huang notes flaws in China’s hierarchical national post-SARS outbreak reporting and testing systems, and expresses concern over unintended consequences of ongoing mass quarantine efforts.
As public anger was rising over the official response to the disease, state media last week reported that a 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy died at home in the Hubei countryside while his family was under quarantine. In answer to the question “a 17-year-old child with cerebral palsy was isolated in Hubei and died after being home alone for six days. How can we avoid similar incidences?” on the Q&A site Zhihu, a low-level CCP cadre weighed in. The response, by user Tan Jiandong (谭靖东) and translated below, provides a glimpse into the confusion and frustration that exists on the frontline, even among officials:
Civil servants, ideologues, theorists, fans of future history.
I’m crying while I type. In my mind, “why do the common people suffer like this” is constantly echoing.
Why do the common people suffer like this?!
As a person within the system, I know that many things should not be said. To say those things would be to disregard politics. To talk about politics means you must speak according to the rules.
But, I can’t help but speak.
I’ve seen some people criticizing local officials for non-action. To be frank, in my time working as a local cadre, I’ve also even seen inaction at the local level. But, do you know how much salary local officials receive? Do you know where bosses, big and small, assign their unemployed relatives? Do you know how much work the local government has taken on, and how much anger we have to bear?
On the evening of the 25th, the first day of the New Year, I received an urgent notification. On the 26th I drove 500 kilometers to the work unit.
It’s now been five days. I don’t really want to go into what I’ve done these five days, all I want to say is that the people at the local level have done enough to be worthy of their conscience.
Today was the busiest day. Throughout the day, those looking for me either requested data or advanced models, checked posts or investigated accounts; either ordered the removal of individuals or lockdowns of streets; the messages that were sent to us were either documents or propaganda slogans. The funniest thing is that the higher-up government and inspection departments told everyone to wait for orders. We waited for an entire day without hearing anything, till we finished work and got a call telling us to come back tomorrow. What a smart move, frightening their subordinates everyday and then worrying whether they are fulfilling their duties.
Five days. I’ve received everything from higher authorities except a mask, a thermometer, and disinfectant.
It’s been five days, all investigations have been reported. The format of the ledger is being changed on a daily basis, but nobody is giving instructions on what to do about the high-risk individuals that have been reported.
You all say that grassroots cadres do not care for children with cerebral palsy, but how much time do grassroots cadres–who must report dozens of statistics a day–have to take care of neighborhood children who may be infected? After the visit ends, how much time do local cadres have for even a bite of food before they have to go back and rewrite the report just because they did not wear the right volunteer uniform when making the visit? After all, there are still hundreds of thousands of inhabitants waiting for their forms to be signed, and dozens of locations waiting for political slogans to be hung.
Originally I was indifferent, used to the sight of it all. But today I received instructions that tomorrow I’m to completely seal the community and expel all outsiders. Both myself and those in my neighborhood felt uncomfortable about this. I tried to tell them that if people become homeless and fall sick in this cold weather, that would only increase pressure on the hospital. I told them that with lockdowns everywhere, these people will have nowhere to go once they are kicked out of the community. I even used cost-benefit analysis to try to convince them that if people in this group are later diagnosed with the virus and if it becomes known that we are responsible for causing the spread of the virus/movement of people because we expelled them, we will also be held responsible.
But what’s the use. None of the people I’m talking to are decision makers. Who is there to blame? The examples are right there–those people from Hubei who are stuck on the highway and not allowed to enter any city. Is everyone thinking ‘so long as the epidemic doesn’t happen where I am then all is well’?… Using one’s neighbor as a drain; I’m just being used to dig, and I’m not qualified to comment.
After the meeting I picked up my phone and saw this news. The accumulated emotions of the entire day burst out–a big man was now crying. On this day I didn’t see a shred of good news. In the morning I saw experts wrangling over for their papers. In the afternoon I read about the scuffling happening at the Huoshenshan Hospital construction site. In the evening I saw that the Huanggang Health Commission director had been sacked. All these things are rushing around in my head in a hideous mess. I’m at a loss, I don’t know what to do.
That child who died quietly was 17 years old. That is to say, he came into the world the year that SARS wreaked havoc. He left this world 17 years later with this new outbreak. I’m not sure if his cerebral palsy affected the way that he saw the world.
How innocent are the people!!
Enough, now to sleep. Even if I can’t sleep, I should probably pretend to sleep. After all, once morning comes, I still have to go with the propaganda department to interview the disease prevention frontline model officials. [Chinese]
See also CDT’s translation of a Wuhan resident’s notes from the Wuhan lockdown. CDT has also translated a propaganda directive ordering the deletion of an article on an infected frontline doctor who had earlier been disciplined for “spreading rumors” about the virus, and an earlier directive to delete a state media report on the potential economic impact of the outbreak (the deleted article has also been translated by CDT).