On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). The succession of international news reports and constant statistic updates that followed have been overwhelming. However, not all news reports accurately portrayed the situation we are currently experiencing. On the contrary, at times it feels as if some media outlets are purposely blowing things out of proportion.
As a foreigner who has remained in Beijing throughout this time, I would like to bring some clarity into the matter, to offer some peace of mind to those who are genuinely concerned about their loved ones currently in Beijing, and about the Chinese people in general.
I first heard about the virus in late December, when only a few cases had been identified in Wuhan, and human-to-human transmission had not been confirmed. I would be lying if I said I was not concerned then. I had been told on multiple occasions about the 2003 SARS epidemic and the many lives that were lost to it. Therefore, I started to closely follow the news reports, to be extra cautious when visiting public places, and to be even more thorough with my hygiene.
In mid-January, however, it became clear that the situation was far more serious than many of us had thought. That was when stronger preventive and controlling measures started to be implemented. Unfortunately, it was also around that time that many people were starting to get ready to celebrate Chinese New Year, which meant that millions of people would be travelling to their hometowns and abroad, potentially spreading the virus farther and faster. In the following days, the more cases were reported, the more apocalyptic the international media reports became. Several foreign governments decided to evacuate their citizens in Wuhan, while others opted to deny entry to Chinese passengers and people travelling from China. As if that were not enough, multiple airlines put a halt to their flights from and to China.
There is no doubt that the virus poses a great threat to public health, and to the economy. It is also understandable that foreign governments want to protect their citizens, and that international carriers are essential in helping stop the spread. However, as a foreigner that is still in China, it pains me to see how the efforts of the Chinese government, of thousands of health workers and of millions of Chinese people that are battling the epidemic are being diminished and harshly criticized by malicious headlines.
I am not a health specialist, nor do I possess any qualifications that allow me to critically evaluate the official actions taken since the discovery of the virus. I suppose that there is always a better and faster way to deal with an epidemic, but I also recognize that those alternatives might not always be readily available. What I can attest to, however, is the prompt response of the central government and the local Beijing authorities – specifically in Haidian District – during the past two weeks.
There has been an incredible mobilization of material and human resources in order to curb the spread of the virus. Some drugstores have been giving out surgical masks for free; there has been a stable supply of food and other essentials in the supermarkets I have visited; and the restaurants that remained opened during the Chinese New Year holiday and after have stepped up their hygiene controls. Schools and universities have implemented online teaching, and many companies have also encouraged their employees to work from home.
I do not wish to minimize the severity of this health crisis. There is a high risk of being infected if we are not mindful of our hygiene, and if we do not take preventive measures such as wearing an appropriate mask in public places, avoiding physical contact with others and avoiding crowded areas. Logically, people with a debilitated immune system are more likely to fall ill, and have a smaller chance to make a quick recovery. However, it is simply ridiculous to assume that everyone in China has contracted the virus, and that once someone is infected, he or she will definitely die.
Although the low death rate of patients infected with the virus is not an excuse for not taking this crisis seriously, it certainly helps put things into perspective. Several online platforms such as WeChat are offering real-time statistics on the numbers of people confirmed to have the virus, those suspected of having it, those who have recovered, and finally, those who have passed away. Just by looking at the numbers it becomes clear that although the virus spreads very fast, it is not as deadly as the international media want us to believe.
Unfortunately, international broadcasters are passively followed by millions of people around the world. Their negative coverage has fueled fears and biases that have resulted in a surge of racism towards Asian people, specifically Chinese. Conspiracy theories have flooded the internet, and an international animosity against China has developed. All of these have taken the attention away from the true victims of the virus—people who have lost their lives, or their families, or who are in constant fear for their loved ones.
This is not the end of the world; this is not the end of China. Eventually, the crisis will pass. But the insensitive posts, the cruel comments against Asians, the pain caused by the racist actions of a few will all remain in the minds and the hearts of those who are now suffering. Let’s stop fueling hatred and start encouraging empathy. We all deserve it.
The author is a Cuban master’s student currently completing a comparative education program at Beijing Normal University.