When the Coronarivus epidemic broke out of China early January this year, reports on the Chinese government’s efforts in terms of controlling the spread of the disease gathered optimistic support worldwide. The city was put on a lockdown, construction of special hospitals was expedited, and sweat shops were shuttered. The overall activity levels seemed to be high and centered around immediate crisis control. However, over two months later the crisis remains far from abated.
Over 70,000 cases have been diagnosed in Mainland China so far – a significant hike from 800 just one month ago. Worldwide too the disease has found its way to several countries. Despite relatively low death rates, the paranoia around the disease is such that the WHO has had to step in to categorically advise countries against blanket measures to curb the disease, declaring them unwarranted. Back in India, cases of offices switching from biometric to manual systems of recording employee attendance have been reported. Overall, the world seems to be on high alert, psychologically, while China continues with its policies of prevention and parallel treatment in order to keep the situation from worsening.
While it is reasonable to assume that the spread of the disease would have been much worse had it not been for the efforts of the Chinese government, it is equally important to look at the reasons for China’s failure in curbing the epidemic so far. Back in 2002, one of the biggest roadblocks in curbing the SARS outbreak was the intentional spread of misinformation intended to manage the government’s public image. This time around, it was refreshing to see the government acknowledge the crisis. However, its shortcoming this time is in focusing on measures that look more impactful than they actually are. Many are starting to accuse the government of implementing policies keeping in mind its public image, without putting much thought into the impact of said policies in abating the crisis. And there might be some merit to this claim.
Take for instance the government’s historic decision to build a new hospital with 1600 beds and new equipment in under 10 days. The Leishenshan hospital was constructed in record speed and the government gained a lot of positive press for its effort. However, a week into its construction, only 90 patients had been admitted into the hospital. Interestingly, NY Times reports that the official government website recording Wuhan’s city health data showed no spare beds in the hospital at the time. This reads as a major red flag as it creates a false gulf between the ground reality and the reports floated by the government.
Additionally, experts opine that the exercise of building new hospitals was entirely pointless as the government could have just as easily deployed resources to help deal with the crises and cater to patients in a more economical and time sensitive way. The popular explanation is best summarized by political science expert Prof Steve Tsang who says, “… a country setting up field hospitals looks like one in crisis. A government expanding hospitals looks like one in control.But a new hospital built from the ground up, that’s a world record.”
While this discussion on the government’s abuse of this public health crisis in order to build its image is based entirely on conjecture, what gives more merit to its claim is the way it uses its media to project a favourable image. Questions on authenticity of statistics aside, the government has announced that it will soon be releasing a book in all of six languages on President’s Xi Jinping’s “outstanding leadership, strategic vision, sense of mission and care for the people” in times of this public health crisis, reports CNN. This is an especially disturbing priority, especially when the country is still on a lockdown and the crisis nowhere near a halt. Claims of reporters being deployed to Wuhan to share stories of nurses and doctors working on curbing the virus are also doing rounds on international media forums.
This is of course, not to say that all efforts have been in vain — The government has owned up to the crisis, but could have possibly made a better impact had it not remained so focused on juicing the scope of political propaganda in the midst of an emergency. While it is true that all governments remain prone to similar patterns of behaviour, they must recognise that while cultivating a culture of silence might help in maintaining a false sense of authority, ultimately, the public will have a more passionate and organic response to positive outcomes of well-intentioned state policies. A free and fair media must remain at the centre of this process of confidence building.
-Contributed by Pragya Chamoli, Consulting Editor
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