A New York Times opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof on Jan 29, entitled “Coronavirus Spreads, And The World Pays For China’s Dictatorship”, has accused President Xi Jinping of using his authoritarian leadership to control information, rather than stop an epidemic.
The writer claims there was a delay in the virus outbreak being announced, not only to the world but even to “his own people”.
The virus was first seen on Dec 1, followed by concerns raised among Wuhan city’s medical personnel a few weeks later. At that point, the writer believes, alarm bells should have been rung, which would have resulted in an outbreak smaller in scale.
The authorities instead turned their attention on those who wanted to publicise the growing health threat. Kristof writes: “A doctor who told a WeChat group about the virus was disciplined by the Communist Party and forced to admit wrongdoing. The police reported giving “education” and “criticism” to eight front-line doctors for “rumormongering” about the epidemic; instead of punishing these doctors, Xi should have listened to them.”
To make matters worse, while the World Health Organization was informed by the Chinese authorities on Dec 31, 2019, concerning the virus outbreak, the people who stood to be most affected by it were only told on Jan 20.
Kristof added that the Mayor of Wuhan said he had not been allowed to even talk about the virus until late in January. From the time of the first diagnosis until China began to seriously address the issue with a lockdown of the city on Jan 23, a gap of several weeks, people came and went out of Wuhan as they pleased, taking no health precautions. He cites the Mayor as saying that, by that time of the lockdown, five million people had fled the city.
The delay in making information about the outbreak known also prevented hospitals from stocking up on much needed supplies and protective gear. The article adds: “Some doctors were reduced to making goggles out of plastic folders.”
Kristof says: “One reason for the early cover-up is that Xi’s China has systematically gutted institutions like journalism, social media, nongovernmental organizations, the legal profession and others that might provide accountability. These institutions were never very robust in China, but on and off they were tolerated until Xi came along.”
Perhaps the problem, the writer says, is that as a dictator, Mr Xi may be surrounded by people who only tell him what he seems to want to hear. “Dictators often make poor decisions because they don’t get accurate information: When you squelch independent voices you end up getting just flattery and optimism from those around you.”
Kristof also expressed concern about the virus reaching the Muslim community in the far west of the country, where health services are severely limited.
He ends his article by saying that Mr Xi should be in trouble: “I don’t know if Xi is in political trouble for his misrule, but he should be. He’s a preening dictator, and with this outbreak some citizens are paying a price.” -/TISG