As Singapore enters Orange Alert (perhaps even Red, if the situation worsens), our hearts must go to the people of Wuhan, the humanity at Novel Coronavirus Ground Zero in Hubei province, central China. In particular, all hats off to the doctors and nurses trying to cope with and contain the virus outbreak which has not yet peaked and may get worse.
For special mention and perhaps nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize this year: Dr Li Wenliang, the hero and fast becoming an icon, who had just died after contracting the virus while treating patients in Wuhan. He was the whistle blower who tried in a closed WeChat group last December to warn the local authorities about the virus but was told by the police to “stop making false comments” and was investigated for “spreading rumours”. His death sparked an avalanche of public anger and grief in China. The 34-year-old ophthalmologist became infected himself. Nothing Li said was incorrect, but it came as officials in the city were initially downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak and its danger to the public.
By Friday (Feb 8) morning, the South China Morning Post reported, hashtags “Dr Li Wenliang has passed away” had 670 million views, “Li Wenliang has passed away” had 230 million views and “I want freedom of speech” had 2.86 million views on Weibo. They were, however, quickly removed by the shaken authorities.
All power to the whistle blowers and to the Chinese social media which carried the justified backlash at the authorities in a media-controlled society (much like Singapore) by a regime which dislikes dissent or bad news (again, much like a government we are all very familiar with).
The images from Wuhan are disturbing and sad. At the end of January, an AFP picture of a dead elderly man’s body lying in an empty street went around the world. The street would have been typically crowded in this usually bustling city of 11 million but now under a lockdown. More such pictures would probably emerge in the weeks to come, that is, if they are not already all over every social media platform.
It is, however, at the besieged hospitals that the real medical frontline stories are the most heart-breaking.
Here’s a quote from Dr Peng Zhiyong, director of acute medicine at the Wuhan University South Central Hospital, who was interviewed by Caixin Global: “I often cried because so many patients could not be admitted to the hospital. They wailed in front of the hospital. Some patients even knelt down to beg me to accept him into the hospital. But there was nothing I could do since all beds were occupied. I shed tears while I turned them down. I ran out of tears now. I have no other thoughts but to try my best to save more lives.
“The most regretful thing to me was a pregnant woman from Huanggang. She was in very serious condition. Nearly 200,000 yuan (about $28,700) were spent after more than a week in the ICU. She was from the countryside, and the money for hospitalisation was borrowed from her relatives and friends. Her condition was improving and she was likely to survive. But her husband decided to give up. He cried for his decision. I wept too because I felt there was hope for her to be saved. The woman died after we gave up. And exactly the next day, the (Chinese) government announced a new policy that offers free treatment for all coronavirus-infected patients. I feel so sorry for that pregnant woman”.
And there is this opening paragraph of Time magazine’s latest cover story (“China’s Test”):
“It took eight hours for a doctor to see Wu Chen’s mother after she arrived at the hospital. Eight days later, she was dead. The doctor was ‘99% sure’ she had contracted 2009-nCoV, Wu says, but he didn’t have the testing kit to prove it. And despite the 64-year-old’s fever and perilously low oxygen levels, there was no bed for her. Wu tried two more hospitals over the next week, but all were overrun. By Jan 25, her mother was slumped on the tile floor of an emergency room, gasping for air, drifting in and out of consciousness. ‘We didn’t want to see my mom die on the floor, so we took her home,’ says Wu, 30. ‘She passed the next day.’”
Jude Blanchett, a China analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, was quoted as criticising the Chinese government’s system of top-down control: “Nobody acted until they got word from the top, and then everyone wildly overreacted in order to satisfy the leader…The full Chinese Communist Party apparatus didn’t kick into gear to address the coronavirus until Xi Jinping had weighed in on the matter. Notably, the President himself has kept a low profile since the outbreak began and was not seen in public for eight days after the Lunar New Year.”
Now, throughout China, Time said, fear is mixing with inchoate rage. “In Hubei province, people from Wuhan are ostracised. But in other provinces, people from anywhere in Hubei are shunned. Videos circulating on social media show vigilantes tooling up to protect their villages. In one video, a man in a dark jacket and wide-brimmed hat guards a bridge with a pistol. In another, a man in an orange puffer jacket sits on a table at the entrance to his village, brandishing an enormous sword. All have signs nearby with a common theme: outsiders cannot pass.”
Singapore, if and when orange turns into red, may face its first real test of nationhood. No amount of pseudo-Bicentennialism celebration can substitute for the coming challenge of community trust. Already some signs of panic buying and irresponsible behaviour have been showing. Medical swipes, thermometers and surgical masks are being hoarded amid a stream of fake news and mischievous online postings.
And there is this huge group of 30,000 work-pass holders from China due to come back to Singapore after the New Year break. They will be put on the mandatory 14 days leave of absence first. Do we sympathise with them as we would the people of Wuhan? Or shun them as collateral damage in Singaporeans’ overall disenchantment with the PAP government’s pro-foreigner policies?
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of The Independent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The StraitsTimes. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.