Managing coronavirus is a process of trial and adjustment
First Voice

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Not to sound callous, but the coronavirus offers a precious opportunity to learn. The novel virus is presenting novel challenges to not just medical researchers, but also people who are responsible for governance. While the world is scrambling to contain the spread of the outbreak, it should also be realized that the situation in front of everyone is almost without precedent.

For one, it is happening in the world's most populous country at a time that is often described as the largest annual human migration in history. Add the flu-like symptoms in the early stages, the possibility of people-to-people transmission and the speed of modern-day communication, the virus soon spread beyond a specific region. The decision to lock down a city with more than 11 million people "is unprecedented in public health history," a World Health Organization representative told the New York Times.

Another challenge is the information flow. Social media like Weibo and WeChat have drastically decentralized sources of information and enhanced the exposure of individual stories. The lack of transparency, the incompetence of certain authorities and officials and the effect of governmental actions get quickly disseminated to both domestic and foreign audiences. The general public could mount challenges online regarding the problems they encounter.

Social media can outpace the government's reactions. Problems can stir a frenzy on the internet before they are discovered by the authorities. And the sheer size of the population and its movement just puts every issue on steroids.

A customer at a pharmacy in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on January 26, 2020. /Xinhua Photo

A customer at a pharmacy in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on January 26, 2020. /Xinhua Photo

Some have focused on pointing out inefficiencies and errors. The NYT story on February 1, titled "As new coronavirus spread, China's old habits delayed fight," focused on detailing how the lack of transparency at the initial stage has stalled and diminished the ability of the authorities to control the virus. 

Yet, the article has done so without giving due regard to the fact that the mayor of Wuhan Zhou Xianwang formally apologized during an interview on January 27 for not disclosing the information promptly. And the government has made transparency a priority by giving daily updates and press conferences to inform the public of developments.

Criticizing is fine. But the analysis has to be balanced. And it cannot be denied that the machinery of government at all levels has been responding to problems. To solve the overflow of patients in hospitals, two specialized hospitals, Huoshenshan and Leishenshan, have been built within days. Huoshenshan is receiving its first group of patients on February 3, just 11 days after construction broke ground.

And to educate people on this new disease, Chinese officials and the media have repeatedly emphasized the importance of quarantine. To calm the public's rush to purchase all kinds of face masks, articles and videos about choosing the appropriate things to wear and purchase have been distributed online and on traditional media outlets.

The State Council's press conference on February 3 was a clear demonstration of the government's responsiveness as well. Officials from six different sections and departments, ranging from economy and business to information and transportation, made appearances to give public briefings on the situation.

To sooth fear among businesses of overproducing face masks, the government has announced that it will take in the excess output when the crisis ends so that the companies could devote all resources to production. And to keep the food supply at a safe level and price, the government is keeping 10,000 tons of pork and 60,000 tons of vegetables in Shanghai and provinces around Hubei ready to be supplied to Wuhan City at a moment's notice.

The authorities are mobilizing, but pre-organization and pre-planning could only reach so far. It is almost impossible to expect that everything will go smoothly in managing a public health crisis, especially one with challenges and countermeasures previously unheard of and never attempted before. There are going to be hits and misses during the process and the government and society are constantly adapting to new problems as they pop up.

And this process of trial and adjustment has been and will continue to be the backbone of managing the epidemic.

Script writer: Huang Jiyuan

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