The Wuhan Coronavirus Epidemic - Lessons for Governance
PK Khup Hangzo, Associate Fellow, VIF

Transparency or the sharing of accessible, timely, relevant, and accurate information in an open manner is a core component of good governance.1 More broadly, transparency refers to “the quality of being open, communicative, and accountable” and implies that “governments and other agencies have a duty to act visibly and understandably.” 2 This commentary argues that transparency is key to addressing many critical challenges of governance including global public health crises. Using the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic as a case study, it shows that the Chinese government’s lack of transparency and its penchant for secrecy has hindered efforts aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus early on and that the cost of maintaining such secrecy is high, dangerous, and increasingly untenable.

The Costs of the Coronavirus Epidemic

In early December 2019, the central Chinese city of Wuhan witnessed the outbreak of a new, previously unknown virus that is believed to have originated from an animal and seafood market in the city. Now known by its scientific name 2019-nCoV or “novel coronavirus,” it belongs to a family of viruses known as coronaviruses that infect mostly bats, pigs, and small mammals.3 But they also infect humans and cause contagious and fatal respiratory illness. As of 13 February 2020, China reported 59,539 cases of infection and 1,361 deaths.4 The corresponding global figures include 60,107 cases of infection and 1,363 deaths. On the economic front, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) have warned of “substantive impact” on China’s real GDP as a result of the coronavirus epidemic thereby reducing its real GDP forecast for the country in 2020 to 5.4 per cent from its baseline forecast of 5.9 per cent.5 Given that China's economy accounted for 16 per cent of world GDP,6 any major downturn in its economy will have significant global impacts.

The Wuhan Coronavirus Outbreak and Early Missteps

It has now been widely acknowledged that the Chinese governments’ “early missteps” and its obsession with “state secrecy” in the early weeks of the coronavirus epidemic allowed the disease to spread farther and faster.7 Had they been more forthcoming and transparent about it right from the very beginning, it could have contained its spread much more easily. A reconstruction of events by various media outlets of the first few weeks between the appearance of the first symptoms in early December 2019 and the Chinese government’s eventual decision to lock down Wuhan on 23 January 2020 revealed the reluctance of government officials to publicly acknowledge the coronavirus outbreak and the lack of transparency over its handling.

As it turns out, the government had put secrecy and order ahead of openly and aggressively confronting the coronavirus epidemic. It silenced doctors working at Wuhan’s hospitals who scrambled to send out legitimate warnings on what they know about the coronavirus at that point in time.8 In one instance, a doctor at the Wuhan Central Hospital named Li Wenliang noticed seven cases of a virus that he thought looked like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), also caused by a coronavirus, in his hospital. On 30 December 2019, Dr. Li sent a message to fellow doctors in a chat group and warned them of it. For this, he was chastised by the police for making “untrue comments” that had "severely disturbed the social order"9 and was made to sign a police statement that his warning constituted “illegal behavior.”10 This effectively prevented him from further going public about the coronavirus. The police subsequently announced that it has “summoned and punished” seven more medical professionals for “spreading rumors” about the coronavirus. By this time, at least 27 cases of what was later confirmed to be coronavirus had been detected in the city.11

Even as the coronavirus begins to tighten its grip on Wuhan, government officials continue to play down its dangers by striking optimistic notes in their announcements. They suggested that the virus has been stopped at its source and there was no evidence of it spreading between humans.12 Furthermore, censors limits news coverage about it and removed its references from the public sphere. As a result of these, Wuhan’s 11 million residents remained in the dark about the coronavirus epidemic for weeks. Besides, the optimistic tones struck by government officials lulled into complacency those who were already infected thereby abetting the coronavirus’ spread. Thus, the Wuhan government lost one of its best chances to contain the epidemic by not moving aggressively and informing the public about the potential risks and the precautions that they could take. By the time it galvanized into action by declaring an emergency on 20 January, followed by a lockdown of Wuhan on 23 January of this year, the disease had grown into a formidable threat, one that was on the verge of becoming a global public health crisis owing to increased global travel.

As public anger over the alleged cover-up mounted, the mayor of Wuhan acknowledged criticism over his handling of the crisis and admitted that “information was not released quickly enough.”13 But such acknowledgement came too little too late as early missteps and the government’s penchant for secrecy allowed the coronavirus to spread farther and faster. Alluding to this, one expert likens the Chinese government’s subsequent desperate attempts to contain the epidemic to “trying to catch a galloping horse that's already left the barn.”14 The reluctance to share information however is part of a pattern of Chinese official’s attempt to muzzle what they considered to be discomforting information. As such, systemic official cover-ups of scandals and deficiencies are routine. Examples include the SARS epidemic in 2003, the Songhua River contamination in 2005, and the Wenzhou train crush in 2011. These epidemic and disasters also witnessed a pattern of denial, cover-up, and evasion.15

As to why Chinese government officials engaged in denial and cover-up, one expert explained that they are “afraid of being associated with ‘problems’ that could reflect badly on their personal careers and create headaches for higher level leaders.”16 However, as can now be seen, the cost of maintaining secrecy and cover-ups over major public health crises with global implications like the coronavirus epidemic is high, dangerous, and increasingly untenable.

Transparency as a Key Tool to Contain Epidemics

The coronavirus epidemic is unlikely to be the last of global public health crises to occur. The past decades alone have witnessed the Ebola epidemic in Guinea in 2014, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) epidemic in Saudi Arabia in 2012, the H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic in 2009 in Mexico, and the SARS pandemic in China in 2002. There could be more waiting to happen in the future. In an age characterized by increasing cross-border movements of people, local outbreaks (epidemic) could in no time become global (pandemic). And recent trends of population growth and rapid urbanization could make it much more likely for such outbreak to happen.

According to the United Nations, the world’s population is projected to grow from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 8.5 billion in 2030 and 9.7 billion in 2050.17 Most of the population growth will occur in urban areas. Already, an estimated 55 per cent of the world’s population, or 4.2 billion people, live in urban areas as of 2018. This is projected to increase to 60 per cent in 2030.18 Meeting the demands for housing, infrastructure, and resources of a growing and more urban population means more habitat destructions which in turn could lead to more people coming into closer contact with animals that carry dangerous pathogens.

Epidemic outbreak in densely populated urban areas can therefore spread like wildfire. Experts have already warned of new epidemic that could turn into pandemic without warning, one that could potentially infect more than 300 million people and killing more than 30 million within six months.19 Although pandemics of such monumental scale have yet to occur, experts have nonetheless warned that it is highly “plausible”. In light of this, the importance of transparency as a key tool to contain the spread of epidemics cannot be underestimated.

The availability of information, in and of itself, may not be enough. According to the Transparency & Accountability Initiative (TAI), information should be “relevant and accessible” on the one hand and “timely and accurate” on the other.20 Transparency becomes even more critical in democratic countries. In the current digital age, information, accurate or otherwise, travels at speed and there is diversity of information sources. It can be argued then that many governments in democratic countries have lost their monopoly over information. Despite this, citizens continue to rely on their governments for accessible, timely, relevant, and accurate information especially in times of crisis.

When governments fail to provide them with adequate information, rumors, fake news, and misinformation takes hold of digital platforms like social media from where they spread rapidly causing panic and stymying intervention efforts. As was the case with the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan, secrecy and the lack of transparency could hobble quick and effective responses to public health emergencies. On the contrary, the dissemination of accessible, timely, relevant, and accurate information in an open and transparent manner could potentially help contained and eventually halt the spread of epidemics early on.

  1. Bauhr, Monika and Naghmeh Nasiritousi. 2012. “Resisting Transparency: Corruption, Legitimacy, and the Quality of Global Environmental Policies”. Global Environmental Politics, Volume 12, Issue 4, November, pp. 9-29. Cited in Zúñiga, Nieves. 2018. “Does more transparency improve accountability?” U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre. Chr. Michelsen Institute. U4 Helpdesk Answer 2018:22. 19 November.
  2. Zúñiga, Nieves. 2018. “Does more transparency improve accountability?” U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Chr. Michelsen Institute, U4 Helpdesk Answer 2018:22. 19 November.

  3. Huang, Chaolin et al. 2020, “Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China”. The Lancet, January 24.
  4. Zhou, Cissy and Gigi Choy. “Coronavirus: Hubei province reports spike in new confirmed cases and deaths after change in diagnostic criteria.” South China Morning Post. February 13, 2020.
  5. Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). “Coronavirus: four scenarios for China’s economy”. The Economist. February 3, 2020.
  6. McKinsey Global Institute. 2019. “China and the world: Inside the dynamics of a changing relationship”. Report. July 19.
  7. Shih, Gerry, Emily Rauhala and Lena H. Sun. “Early missteps and state secrecy in China probably allowed the coronavirus to spread farther and faster.” The Washington Post. February 1, 2020.
  8. Buckley, Chris and Steven Lee Myers. “As New Coronavirus Spread, China’s Old Habits Delayed Fight”. The New York Times. February 1, 2020.
  9. Hegarty, Stephanie. “The Chinese doctor who tried to warn others about coronavirus”. BBC. February 6, 2020.
  10. Wang, Lianzhang. “Rumormonger’ Doctor Who Raised the Alarm Says He Has Coronavirus”. Foreign Policy. February 1, 2020.
  11. Tardáguila, Cristina and Summer Chen. “China arrested 8 for spreading ‘hoaxes’ about what is now known as coronavirus. What happened to them?” Poynter. January 23, 2020.
  12. Pei, Minxin. “How China’s coronavirus crisis, like the Sars epidemic, was worsened by the Communist Party’s penchant for secrecy.” South China Morning Post. January 29, 2020.
  13. Rebecca, Ratcliffe, and Michael Standaert. “China coronavirus: mayor of Wuhan admits mistakes.” The Guardian. January 27, 2020.
  14. Woodward, Aylin. “There's a good chance the Wuhan coronavirus will never disappear, experts say. There are only 3 possible endings to this story.” Business Insider. February 8, 2020.
  15. Graham-Harrison, Emma. “Help or hindrance? How Chinese politics affected coronavirus response”. The Guardian. January 31, 2020.
  16. Graham-Harrison, Emma. “Help or hindrance? How Chinese politics affected coronavirus response”. The Guardian. January 31, 2020.
  17. United Nations. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2019. “World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights.” (ST/ESA/SER.A/423).
  18. United Nations. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2019. “World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights.”
  19. Global Preparedness Monitoring Board. 2019. “A world at risk: annual report on global preparedness for health emergencies.” Geneva: World Health Organization. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.
  20. Transparency & Accountability Initiative (TAI). “How do we define key terms? Transparency and accountability glossary.” Undated.

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