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Up Against the Coronavirus, China’s Surveillance State Has Failed

Brendon Hong
Kevin Frayer

HONG KONG—The Chinese government has a famously (or infamously) sophisticated surveillance system that incorporates facial recognition, tight observations of social media networks, and phone tracking. One piece of equipment that Chinese police departments have adopted is described by its manufacturer like this: “People pass and leave a shadow. The phone passes and leaves a number. The system connects the two.”

Fifth U.S. Case of Coronavirus Confirmed in Patient Who Traveled From Wuhan, China

But at a time of critical need, as a medical crisis is escalating across the country and spreading to other parts of the world, threatening to become a global epidemic if quarantines cannot be enforced, the Chinese government’s vaunted ability to monitor the population has been nullified.

In the days leading up to a citywide quarantine of Wuhan and lockdowns in nearby areas, where residents of the Hubei provincial capital have been barred from leaving its limits, 5 million people left the city nonetheless. 

In a cold winter where people are bundled up, and where many are donning face masks, face-scanning software has been rendered moot. And though every SIM card purchase requires a face scan to verify a user’s identity, tracking down millions of travelers who have left the viral outbreak’s epicenter is proving to be a Sisyphean task.

To make matters worse, we now know that the coronavirus can be transmitted by carriers who exhibit no symptoms, compounding worries that body temperature checks are ineffective as screening measures. 

As of 8:30 p.m. on Monday in China, 81 people have been killed by the coronavirus. More than half of the confirmed infections and most of the deaths were in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital.

So far, there are five confirmed cases of the coronavirus within American borders. They are in Washington state, California, Texas, and Chicago. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the coronavirus’ risk to America remains low, though U.S. health officials are retracing these patients’ footsteps to identify people who they have been in close contact with.

American and other stock markets took major hits on Monday amid fears that China's oil consumption, tourism and trade may all see massive declines.

There is some good news. With supplies from across the country and abroad pouring in, hospitals in Wuhan are catching up to the backlog to treat people who are seeking help. Waiting rooms at most hospitals aren’t as congested, and reinforcements from other parts of China, including more than 2,000 military and civilian doctors, are providing relief for local physicians and nurses. The head of China’s National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, said the government has added 2,400 hospital beds in Wuhan, with 5,000 more coming in the next two days.

Right now, however, hospitals are at full capacity, and new patients are still being turned away by some facilities.

Local officials have been slow to react and inept. At a press conference held on Sunday, Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, showed up wearing his face mask upside-down, and Hubei’s governor, Wang Xiaodong, provided incorrect figures about the province’s production capacity for face masks—10.8 billion, then 1.8 billion, then finally 1.08 million after being corrected by someone who passed a note to him.

WeChat, the dominant social media platform in China, has implemented a “whistleblower” function, allowing users to file reports about officials’ negligence or mismanagement when handling the coronavirus crisis.

There have been other snafus and points of disorganization. Police haven’t received clear direction on how to execute the private vehicle ban on roads in Wuhan’s city center. Text messages that were supposed to indicate who can drive where and when weren’t sent out to the general population. Six thousand taxi drivers who have been commissioned to deliver medication don’t know how the system is supposed to work.

A Chinese Saga of Swine, Surveillance, and Sanctions

The general rule of thumb for everyone in the city has been to remain indoors and venture out only for supply runs or emergencies.

People in Wuhan—and across Hubei—are angry. Some have questioned why local officials have been so slow to respond to the outbreak, and why significant efforts were put into censoring information about the coronavirus in news reports and on social media. They’re also bored because they have been stuck at home for days, with no end of the quarantine in sight. Some people have resorted to shouting out windows to vent and communicate with their neighbors in real life, and not just through screens.

Major airports worldwide are checking arriving travelers’ body temperatures, but that may be ineffective in stopping the virus from landing in new locations via global transportation hubs.

The coronavirus has an incubation period of up to two weeks. During this period, hosts may not run fevers or exhibit any flu-like symptoms.

On Monday, China’s National Education Examinations Authority canceled all February exams for the IELTS, TOEFL, GRE, and GMAT—all tests that Chinese students need to take before they can be enrolled in schools abroad.

A Shanghai-based Reuters journalist who visited Wuhan was tracked down by government officials and placed under a 14-day self-quarantine at home. There are cases in other provinces, like southeastern China’s Guangdong, where police are actively seeking out travelers who originated from the infection zone, possibly by tracking the locations of their smartphones.

  

A chartered plane arranged by the U.S. State Department will evacuate 230 Americans, including diplomats and people working in Wuhan, taking them Stateside. That’s roughly one-quarter of Americans who live in the city that is the origin of the coronavirus outbreak. The Japanese and Australian governments are making similar arrangements to move their nationals back home.

The American consulate in Wuhan has suspended its regular services.

As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc around China and appear in new corners around the world, infecting thousands, and efforts to manage the crisis are falling short of what’s needed, experts are already looking beyond this phase, outlining plans for a global push to fight an epidemic.

Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins SPH Center for Health Security, pointed out in a series of tweets that governments and health institutions worldwide need to plan for the possibility that the coronavirus cannot be effectively contained in China. He said this should include multiple, parallel efforts to create and manufacture vaccines, as well as plans for a global stockpile and allocation by the World Health Organization. Inglesby also underlined the importance of urgent blood serum diagnostics to figure out how severe the virus’ spread is around the globe, as well as new plans for determining potential infections in travelers beyond airport screenings.

All of these measures require collaboration among nations and the relevant corporations, as well as a coordinator to manage the information flow. So far, no such cooperation is taking place.

The World Health Organization’s director general is traveling to Beijing to meet with government officials and health experts in China. The WHO has been hesitant to declare a global health emergency that would demand a “coordinated international response” to the virus’ spread across borders.

Chinese Communist Party premier Li Keqiang is in Wuhan coordinating the efforts to contain the coronavirus. Two hospitals designed to house a combined 2,300 beds are being constructed to treat people who have fallen sick. The first is expected to be completed by Monday, February 3, and will be staffed to handle 1,000 patients.

For now, people who are stuck in Wuhan and other parts of Hubei feel paralyzed. Mixed messages about what will happen to them in the coming days are fraying nerves. Beijing has extended the Lunar New Year holiday until February 2, hoping to delay mass travel as people head back to work, but the history of the last few days suggests the deferment is far from enough to contain a virus that has spread, already, around the world.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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