On December 30, Ai Fen, director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, got the lab results back about one of her patients who had a flulike illness. The words she read on the report made her blood run cold: ‘Sars coronavirus’. She circled the word ‘Sars’, took a photo and emailed it to a doctor at a neighboring hospital. Within hours, the photo had been sent to dozens of people in the Wuhan medical community. One of them sent a series of messages to a private group on WeChat, advising his colleagues to take precautions, and someone took screenshots of those messages and shared them more widely.
Had those doctors been working in another Southeast Asian country (Taiwan, say), the media would have quickly picked up on the chatter about a mysterious new virus and, within days, the authorities would have had no choice but to investigate. On learning of a viral outbreak, they would have then done their best to contain it.
But because this was China, the doctors with whom Ai Fen shared the photograph were arrested two days later, forced to sign confessions saying they were guilty of spreading false information and only released when they’d given an undertaking not to talk about the new virus again. The story made it onto CCTV, the state-owned television network, but it wasn’t about the emergence of a new disease. Rather, it was about a group of irresponsible doctors in Wuhan who had been punished for ‘rumor-mongering’.
We cannot know for certain that the outbreak would have been nipped in the bud if China were a free country rather than a communist dictatorship, but we do know that by the time the state decided to act it was too late…
It’s worth noting that the travel ban imposed on January 23 applied only to internal journeys, not to international ones. Residents of Wuhan and other cities in the region were still able to fly to New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Milan. Why the ban applied only to travel within China is a question that Xi Jinping still hasn’t answered. As Andrew Sullivan put it in New York magazine: ‘It’s as if the Chinese Communist party leaders said to themselves, “Well, we’re going under, so we might as well bring the rest of the world down with us.”’