Within the last two months, the most devastating health crisis in Asia since 2002 has deteriorated society in the Hubei Province in China and has quickly become a national emergency in China and in other Asia-Pacific nations. On January 30th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global emergency over a newly spread virus known as coronavirus or COVID-19. The virus has infected nearly 70,000 people worldwide and has killed over 1,500 people in mainland China. According to the WHO, the virus belongs to a large family of diseases under the term “coronavirus.” These diseases range from the common cold to more severe diseases including Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). Previous to the most recent outbreak, the new COVID-19 strain has not yet been identified in humans and has no identified cure. The first cases of the virus were seen in the Chinese city of Wuhan, a port city in Hubei Province with a population of 11 million. Several cases of severe pneumonia were found in workers of the city’s Huanan Seafood Market. Within a day, 40 people who worked in the market were infected, causing a panic over the possible resurgence of SARS, which killed more than 770 people in the region from 2002-2003. By January 7th, Chinese officials announced they had identified a new virus and by January 11th, China announced the first death directly linked to the virus. Within the next week, other countries including Thailand, Japan, the U.S., Nepal, France, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan had reported cases of the virus within their borders. By January 23rd, Wuhan was placed under quarantine and suspended air and rail departures and by the 25th, 18 cities in Hubei Province where under lockdown, Putting 56 million people under quarantine. By February 1st, Russia, Spain, Sweden the United Kingdom, Canada, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam confirmed cases of the virus which at this point had taken the lives of 259 people in China. By February 9th the death toll in China had surpassed the 2002 SARS epidemic, with 811 deaths and 37,198 infected and by the 11th the death toll grew to 1,016 and the number infected to 42,638. Since February 16th, both Taiwan and France have reported cases of fatalities due to infections.
Since the outbreak of the virus, China’s head of State, Xi Jinping had kept a relatively low profile. A Chinese doctor who attempted to shed light on the outbreak and was targeted by authorities, died last week as a result of the virus. China’s authorities have been scrutinized for downplaying the severity of the virus and trying to keep it a secret in its initial stages. The doctor’s targeting sparked public outrage regarding Xi’s government and as a response, Xi has become more open to public appearances and speeches. Last Monday, President Xi visited a hospital in Beijing, where coronavirus patients are being treated. According to a BBC report, he was quoted saying to medical staff, “we must have confidence that we will eventually win this battle against the epidemic” and that the outbreak was, “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.” In an authoritarian political system, where local officials are afraid to speak out about problems for fear of angering party superiors, an emergency with the serious implications that the epidemic has had, China’s response will be a serious test of transparency and institutional efficacy for the government of China.
The Communist Party of China has already ousted two party leaders in Hubei for failure to control the spread of the virus. The two officials were replaced with protégés of President Xi who have extensive backgrounds in public safety and security. The ousting of party leaders is a rare occurrence in the Chinese government. Since 2013, only two other officials have removed from leadership positions for corruption charges. Changing the leadership in Hubei shows how panicked the Chinese government is. It also shows the political implications the crisis will have on XI’s legacy and his ability to stay in power and maintain his international image.
The shuffling of leadership came as a response to the ineffective methods of counting those infected in Hubei. Since Thursday, numbers of coronavirus infections skyrocketed as it appears that health officials changed the method of diagnosing patients. Hospitals in Hubei were initially diagnosing patients by using tests that detected the virus’s genetic signature, but are now diagnosing patients through scanning the lungs of patients that show symptoms. Officials state that adding symptomatic patients to the count will make it easier for authorities to allocate resources and make assessments for treatment options. The change in diagnosing patients further obscures the tally of those with the virus. It makes it more difficult to distinguish between those with the virus and those affected with other respiratory diseases. Hospitals in Hubei are incredibly overwhelmed and having effective diagnostic methods is becoming increasingly difficult with the rising influx of patients checking into hospitals on a daily basis. The Chinese leadership is now desperate to find improvements, and a way to subside the crisis, but have been relatively ineffective in containing the epidemic.
Chinese authorities have stated that there is not yet any effective cure for treating the virus, but the Chinese National Health Commission has said that lopinavir/ritonavir, a drug used for HIV patients, can be used for coronavirus patients, but hasn’t specified how the drug can be used. The pharmaceutical company that produces the drug, Aluvia has announced that China was testing the drug as a potential treatment for coronavirus. Since the drug’s testing has been announced, the demand for the HIV drug has skyrocketed. Infected patients, front-line doctors and those in search of protection from the virus have been purchasing the drug from HIV patients and directly from Aluvia. The price of a single bottle has gone up from 100 yuan to about 400 yuan since the initial outbreak. WHO has advocated against the semi-legal purchasing of the drug, stating that there are no known effective treatments for coronavirus, knocking down unconfirmed reports of research breakthroughs. With the shortage of medical resources in China, people are desperately searching for solutions through any sufficient means.
The crisis in Hubei is continuing to spread throughout mainland China, as new quarantine rules require those returning to Beijing to isolate themselves for fourteen days. Setting quarantine restrictions on China’s capital and leading financial centre shows that Chinese leaders are struggling to find a balance between keeping China’s economy afloat and continuing to combat the spread of coronavirus. Travel restrictions are preventing companies from finding enough workers to resume production, another hindrance facing the Chinese population amidst one of the most severe catastrophes the country has faced in decades. According to a CNBC report, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi addressed the Munich Security Conference on Friday, stating, “We are confident that China will emerge stronger from the epidemic. Its pent up consumer demand and growth potential will be quickly unleashed and China will enjoy evermore sound and sustainable economic and social development.” Although China’s leaders speak with confidence about China’s strength as a nation, it doesn’t appear that any long-term solutions have been found to mitigate the escalating crisis surrounding the epidemic. The epidemic is becoming an international problem, and it’s up to Chinese authorities and international health organizations to collaborate and find a long-term treatment and containment plan to alleviate the spread of the virus and treat already infected patients before the disease spreads even more and becomes a global health crisis.