Sources for the South China Morning Post report widespread coronavirus infections among hospital staff in Wuhan — information which Chinese authorities aren’t keen on sharing.
The coronavirus claimed 100 lives on Monday, February 10, raising the total number of fatalities to over 1,000. As the virus continues to show its teeth, it’s becoming increasingly clear that information coming from Chinese authorities is not painting the full picture.
It’s not the conspiracy theories — although those have been floating around as much as the coronavirus itself. The virus is not a biological weapon, and was not intentionally released on the people — nothing of the sort. However, it seems that the government told doctors and nurses to keep some numbers hidden and keep infections among their own ranks away from the public.
The situation reached an especially delicate point following the death of Li Wenliang, who was killed by the disease just weeks after he was admonished by the police for “spreading false rumors”. Li Wenliang was trying to raise awareness about something that he’d noticed: a concerning number of his patients appeared to be very sick. He contacted the virus from one of his patients, and his death triggered grief and anger on Chinese social media.
Li Wenliang became a symbol in the fight for free speech. People mourned him through spontaneous and coordinated activities, such as keeping all the lights off in their home for five minutes or blowing whistles for five minutes (to symbolize his status as a whistleblower).
Chinese authorities were not open about this, with many outlets claiming that Li is still alive. They worked to censor the news about Li which sparked even more anger among the people, and mistrust by international health bodies.
In the grand scheme of things, this adds even more concerns to an already troubling outbreak. It’s hard to say how accurate the estimates are in the first place, but there are now valid suspicions that authorities are downplaying the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
There are even reports that the World Health Organization (WHO) must tread lightly as not to offend China — a country known to throw its weight around and quick to claim offense when its policies (often regarding freedom of speech) are not respected by other companies and countries.
This being said, China has also taken laudable steps towards limiting the extent of the outbreak — something which few countries would have been able to do. We can only hope their containment efforts are successful.
In the meantime, we can expect the number of infected health workers to grow. Even with heavy protection in designated hospitals, doctors and nurses are heavily exposed to the disease — and they are also heavily overworked, which raises the risk of infection.
During the SARS outbreak in 2003 (also a coronavirus), around 20% of medical staff were infected — and SARS wasn’t nearly as contagious as the novel coronavirus.