On 5 February, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China is in a ‘critical moment’ in its fight against the coronavirus.
The death toll has reached 1107, as of 12 February; more than the number of deaths recorded by the 2003 SARS virus. 774 people were killed by SARS in over two dozen countries, yet all but two of the coronavirus deaths have been in China. Currently, the number of infected Chinese people is currently sitting at over 42 000, with the figures increasing exponentially each day.
It has reached the point in Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, officials are door-knocking and checking citizen’s temperatures, and forcibly rounding up suspected patients in stadiums and exhibition centres.
In mid-January, Chinese officials were aware that the coronavirus was a serious threat, with the WHO being close to declaring a global emergency. This information was also available during China’s busiest period, Lunar New Year, but the government mishandled the information.
On 30 December 2019, a Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang sent out a warning to his fellow doctors, saying that he discovered seven cases of a virus very similar to the SARS Virus. Four days later, he was summoned to the Public Security Bureau, where the authorities made him sign a letter saying that he was making false comments and severely disturbing the social order.
Doctor Li was one of eight people that were being investigated for such claims, and later, once the police realised he was one of the first to discover the virus, they apologised. By this point, it was much too late, as Li passed away on 7 February.
If the Chinese government’s response to a doctor trying to prevent a now worldwide epidemic is to harass him into submission, then clearly something is amiss in China’s leadership structure.
Further, the authorities had all of the relevant information regarding the virus prior to 25 January 2020—Chinese Lunar New Year—yet they downplayed the severity of the virus in China, and allowed their citizens to travel around the world and spread the virus.
This is evidenced by Jinping saying a day before the Lunar New Year celebrations: ‘our progress will not be halted by any storms or tempests.’ He made no attempt to warn his citizens of the severity of the virus, yet secretly put in place measures to lock down Wuhan.
The CCP went as far as misinforming and not disseminating critical information to their citizens in order to try cover up the coronavirus to save face.
Xi Jinping even put his premier, Li Keqiang as the head of a group handling the emergency, to distract the blame to him if the situation worsens.
Now, the world will feel the effects of the CCP’s inability to quickly act during a time of crisis.
Many international companies have closed production of their factories that are based in China.
Toyota is keeping 12 of its Chinese factories shut, while the world’s most productive car factory, Hyundai, was forced to shutter its doors due to lacking a key component because of the Chinese lockdown.
Apple and Google have closed their offices and are limiting business travel to China, while also preparing for a supply chain disruption.
Microsoft is forcing their Chinese employees to work from home, and Amazon is restricting business travel and urging employees that feel sick to stay home for 14 days.
The biggest companies in the world are already being affected by the outbreak, and many local Chinese businesses have been forced to stop trading to limit potential infection.
But what does this all mean? People are comparing the economic impact of the coronavirus to the SARS virus in 2003, but the circumstances are much too different now to allow for comparison.
In 2003, the Chinese economy was one quarter its current size, and China’s influence and integral role in the world economy was not as relevant as it is now.
Estimates show that China is also heavily misreporting the actual number of infected, to limit the economic impact of such news spreading. A report by the Lancet claims that the true number of infected in China on 25 January was actually 75,815.
Most Chinese medical institutions are unable to accurately report findings, as they are all struggling to handle the enormous increase in workload.
China’s top-down authoritarian system meant that local governments downplayed the severity of the virus to avoid condemnation and action from Beijing, yet now they are overcorrecting to show the CCP they’ve taken charge of the problem.
The highlighted examples are only a fraction of the ways in which the virus is already changing China and the world economy.
As time passes, similar to the exponential growth of infected patients, the effects will ripple outward and may prove fatal for some businesses, communities and economies.
George Sagris is a journalist and Honours graduate in Japanese-Chinese politics, based in Tokyo.