The recent news of a confirmed case of coronavirus in Boston, and the constant stream of information about the thousands of cases around the world, have made it nearly impossible to avoid hearing about this new pandemic. How did this new disease, officially named 2019n-Cov, manage to infect so many people in such a short amount of time? The answer to this question lies within the characteristics and origin of the disease, as well as the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak, which was severely inadequate—to the point of almost being a cover-up. The Chinese government—not the Chinese people—is solely to blame for the extent of the virus, both in its lack of preventative measures and flaws in handling the initial outbreak.
Scientists believe that 2019n-Cov originated from multiple bats infected with the virus, which spread to other animals through their saliva and excrement, and subsequently humans. Sure, you could argue that the devastation caused by this new virus is simply a result of the unfortunate series of mutations that led to its existence, and in no way can anyone be blamed. However, one simply has to look to the SARS outbreak in China in 2003 to understand that the likelihood of this recent outbreak occurring could have and should have been drastically reduced—but it was not.
Just like the current virus, SARS is a coronavirus, of which the reservoir—meaning the organism in which the virus naturally survives and reproduces—is bats. SARS jumped to humans from bats through civets, a mammal local to Southeast Asia, being sold for their meat at a wet market in China’s Yunnan province.
Wet markets are ubiquitous to China and are named for the slaughter of live animals and bloody conditions of the market. Stalls are narrow and tightly packed, leading to butcher counters being directly next to cages of livestock. As the Wildlife Conservation Society explains, "Poorly regulated, live-animal markets mixed with illegal wildlife trade offer a unique opportunity for viruses to spillover from wildlife hosts into the human population." The tightly packed cages and inhumane treatment of both livestock and these exotic creatures weaken their immune systems and make them susceptible to disease; combined with the horrific sanitary conditions found at these markets, wet markets are breeding grounds for deadly viruses.
Just like SARS in 2003, 2019n-Cov is believed to have originated from a wet market in Wuhan. While it is not immediately clear what the intermediary species is, some scientists believe it was Chinese Cobras sold at the Wuhan market that bridged the gap between bats and humans. Immediately after the SARS outbreak, China banned the sale of wildlife at these markets and also implemented regulation to improve the conditions at these markets. The fact that they did so shows that the government recognized the markets' conditions as a cause for the outbreak, but after the first few months of the regulations being put in place, they stopped being enforced. Markets were allowed to go back to their previous conditions.
China justrecently announced it would ban the “illegal” animal trade, in response to the coronavirus. and implement regulations to improve the sanitary conditions at these markets. These are the same exact bans that occurred in 2003 after SARS, and in this case, the bans are simply China trying to save face. Given that they were aware that the conditions at the wet markets were responsible for the SARS outbreak and they made no permanent regulations, the Chinese government is solely responsible for the 2019n-Cov outbreak.
When patient zero was diagnosed, the Chinese government announced that they had discovered a new disease but said that it was only transmitted from animals, and could not be transferred person to person. This was clearly wrong, and the time that it took for them to realize it could be transmitted by humans is what allowed the coronavirus to become a crisis, now infecting over 24,000 across 24 countries (200 of those cases are outside of China). As this New York Times article explains, China only fully began mobilizing against the disease on January 20th, after repeatedly downplaying people’s concerns and claiming that everything was under control. Bureaucracy and government secrecy ultimately lead to inaction.
It is also quite likely that the government is severely under-reporting the number of cases. One piece of evidence isthe recent construction of a Wuhan hospital in 10 days. Another hospital in Hubei Province (the province containing Wuhan, where the virus originated) was recently built with a capacity of 1,600, with similar hospitals also being constructed in Beijing and in other major cities outside of Hubei Province.
Similarly, around the same time, China announced that it would be quarantining about 57 million Chinese citizens (on January 26). Construction of the new hospital was announced on January 25, and at the timethere were only about 1,400 infected reported cases in all of China. If there were only 1,400 cases, why would China be racing to build so many hospitals across the country and quarantine millions? Either the government is being extremely proactive and is willing to effectively shut down its economy for months, or they are under-reporting the actual number of cases and so these measures are necessary. Given their penchant for secrecy and trying to hide the extent of the coronavirus at its early stages, I would suspect it is the latter.
The most worrying and damning evidence that China is grossly underestimating their numbers is the recent news that they are threatening anyone who posts on social media about the virus with up to seven years of jail time, essentially censoring information so that it can release its own state-approved data. Videos have emerged of at least one nurse in a Chinese hospital breaking down,claiming that the hospital was understaffed and overworked, as the virus may have infected as many as 90,000. This ban seems to be aimed at these types of claims.
As a result of the virus’s origination in China, I have heard stories from friends and other BC students about discrimination as a result of the virus. Some people are asking Chinese and Asian students if they are from Wuhan, and in one case someone yelled at a friend to, “Keep the coronavirus away from me.” A statement from the Boston College Asian Caucus summarizes this discrimination and rightfully calls for it to end. It is always important to separate a country’s government from its people, and this case embodies that principle. It is ultimately not the fault of the Chinese people or any international students on campus that the coronavirus has spread so quickly: it is the fault of the Chinese government.
Note: For a live map of Coronavirus cases, see here.