Flat White

Coronavirus: a political disease

6 March 2020

5:00 AM

6 March 2020

5:00 AM

Hong Kong.

When I got to the pharmacy at 9 am, I realised there was no hope of getting a box of masks. The masks would be allotted to the first 380 in the queue when the pharmacy opened at 11 am. But the queue was already a mile down Nathan Road, zigzagging into the side streets. I spoke to an old man who was first in the line. He’d been there since 2 am. The begrudging stoicism of those in the queue only made the irony richer. We were standing right in Asia’s home of capitalism, in what the Hong Kong government likes to self-refer to as a ‘first-class international city’. Yet supermarket shelves have been swept empty, queues abound like USSR breadlines, and the most vulnerable in society cannot access essential services in the current pandemic. 

In the Hong Kong public’s view, this is consistent with the current administration’s record of lacking electoral and performance legitimacy. Hong Kong’s borders, which are supposed to act as international checkpoints, are wide open as calls for a travel ban have fallen on deaf ears. Bloomberg’s Clara Marques suggested in an op-ed in February that Hong Kong is showing symptoms of a failed state. This sounds like an exaggeration but the city is certainly heading in that direction. When a government cannot carry out its basic responsibilities, private enterprise, civil society and international networks are the only way out for a borrowed city on borrowed time. 

Hong Kong’s example is just the tip of the iceberg, but it shows that the ascent of coronavirus in mainland China is a fundamentally institutional problem. Failed institutions and the inability to learn from history have fuelled the virus’s rapid ascent in China and beyond its borders.  


From the beginning, China has been pathologically occupied with downplaying the number of those infected, initially denying that the virus can be transmitted between humans. Many international news outlets described the virus as ‘mysterious’ when authorities made known the virus’s appearance three weeks after the first confirmed case. But if the past three months have shown anything, it is that there is nothing remotely mysterious about a regime whose existential purpose is to uphold the Party at all costs. If doing so means not disclosing the full risk of the virus to the regime’s own people and the rest of the world, so be it. A Lancet study by Wuhan researchers and doctors on January 24 suggests that the virus took off weeks earlier than Chinese officials report. The study also suggested that more than a third of the earliest cases were not linked to the Hunan Wholesale Seafood Market, as officials claim.  

This institutional failure has resulted in disastrous human tolls. Of the more than 80,000 currently infected in China, more than 3,400 are doctors and workers on the frontline. This toll is exacerbated by the lack of transparency and inadequate hospital facilities at the virus’s epicentre in Hubei. Apart from underreporting numbers, another factor that inevitably caused inaccurate reporting is the lack of test kits in poorer disease-ridden cities. If patients never get tested, then they are not included in the headcount. If they die before they are tested positive, then they are not included in the death count. It is small wonder that the death rate was averaging a suspiciously constant 2.1 per cent every day from late January until the end of the month 

Journalists, social media, NGOs and civilians voicing their concerns have been shut down or persecuted across China for “rumour-mongering”. Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who tried to issue the first warning about the deadly coronavirus contracted it himself. He died on February 6 after being forced to repent for “making false comments” and disturbing the “social order”. The habit of systemic cover-ups during public crises is still very much alive in the CCP’s psyche, taking the toll on Dr Li, among many others. The Chinese surgeon who exposed the cover-up of SARS in 2003 has been under house arrest since last year. 

Across the Shenzhen River, Hong Kongers have not forgotten the brutality of SARS in 2003 which killed 299 in Hong Kong.  Again, the high death toll was directly due to a lack of openness, causing a delayed response to control the epidemic. One of the worst tragedies in Hong Kong’s collective memory, SARS has reminded Hong Kongers that they can only rely on themselves when institutions fail. Despite that China is better equipped to contain the coronavirus 17 years on, this pandemic is still a crisis of institutions, more than a crisis of health. It is more of the same of the regime’s cover-ups.  

Another institutional problem reaches beyond China’s borders and raises serious questions about China’s relationship with the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO failed the world during the Ebola crisis, declaring it a public health emergency eight months after it first emerged; and eventually killed more than 11,000. It raises broader questions about China’s influence in international organisations that deal in health, among other things such as intellectual property and security. WHO’s delay in declaring the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” is concerning. Once again, it is a failure to learn from history and a failure of the WHO to meet its international public health obligations.  

One of the most devastating news reports to emerge from the pandemic is the fate of film director Chang Kai, who died on February 14, and his family. His parents died over the previous two weeks, after the family spent days together in self-quarantine, unable to access treatment at a Wuhan hospital.  Chang’s sister died hours after him, and his wife is in serious condition. Hewent to several hospitals and begged to no avail” while the virus consumed the family to the point of no return. They missed the opportunity to be cured. This is the real human toll of coronavirus – a disease of institutions.  

“In my last breath,” wrote Chang from his death bed, “I wish to tell my relatives, friends and son in England this: I have been a good son to my father, a loving husband to my wife and a man of integrity to all.  Farewell to those I love and to those who love me.”  

Charlotte Choi is a final year politics student at the University of Melbourne and President of the Victorian Liberal Students’ Association.  

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