Coronavirus and the deadly cost of state censorship

From its epicentre in China’s Wuhan, the deadly novel coronavirus has spread across the globe at tremendous speed, taking a heavy toll on human life. The virus has now been confirmed as deadlier than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic that first originated in China, and shook 25 other countries in North America, South America, Europe and Asia in the early 2000s. By June 2003, 774 people worldwide had been killed by SARS, and it was finally completely contained by May 2004. In comparison, coronavirus has already caused the death of more than 1000 people. On top of the loss of human lives, the financial loss from the outbreak of this deadly virus is perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars; although it will require a competent team of economists and financial analysts to determine the actual figure. Now the billion-dollar question is, could the outbreak have been averted? Perhaps, if the authorities concerned had listened to Dr Li Wenliang’s warning.

A photo of Dr Li Wenliang is seen beside flower tributes at the Wuhan Central Hospital after his death. PHOTO: STRINGER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Dr Li sent a group message on the Chinese app WeChat, saying that test results from a patient quarantined in the hospital where he worked showed that the patient had coronavirus. But hours after sending it, Wuhan City health officials tracked him down and started questioning him on where he received the information. Instead of being praised for his early warning, Li was visited by Wuhan City police. Out of fear of getting detained and worried over the safety of his family, he agreed to sign a document admitting to spreading rumours online and disrupting social order as a result. The police asked him to cooperate with them, and he even received an order from the government Public Security Bureau to stop the “illegal activity” of spreading misinformation or be “brought to justice” instead. Obviously, Li complied. In the weeks that followed, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission maintained that there was no obvious evidence of human to human transmission of the virus, no infection of healthcare workers and that the outbreak was, in their words, “preventable and controllable”. With that, the people of Wuhan went about their normal lives, until the infections massively escalated.

When it was obvious that the situation was no longer in the control of Wuhan City authorities, China’s central government stepped in and took over to contain the fast-spreading virus. With a rising death toll, Chinese state media were the first to report on how Li was one of several whistleblowers silenced by calls from the police. Since then, strong support for Li and the others, who identified the virus and its sharp spread, has been growing online. China’s Supreme Court even weighed in, adding that “It might have been a fortunate thing for containing the new coronavirus, if the public had listened to this ‘rumour’ at the time”.

By this point, it was too late for Li and thousands of other people in Wuhan, who had already contracted the coronavirus. Li’s condition declined rapidly, but before his death, he witnessed the support of thousands of people online who considered him a hero. The responses after Chinese state media reported Li’s death reflected profound grief and deep anger. Two topics immediately began to trend on Chinese social media—that the Wuhan government owed Dr Li an apology, and the demand for freedom of speech. Needless to mention, both these topics had tens of thousands of views before being censored. Soon after, state media changed its report, citing Wuhan Central Hospital as reporting that Dr Li was still alive but in critical condition. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, hospital authorities officially announced his death. This brave soul died at the young age of 34.

It is praiseworthy that the Chinese government is showing its capability in combatting the outbreak. The world knows that this single country accounts for almost 19 percent of world GDP. But despite this growth, China has failed its people, especially the likes of Dr Li. His only intention was to alert his university classmates about the possible outbreak of a SARS-like virus. He was neither an activist, nor a government critic; but this very sad case once again establishes the fact that censorship, and the lack of freedom of expression, has its price. In an authoritarian state, such a response is not unexpected. Unfortunately, China is not the only authoritarian country in the world—a number of democracies in the world are now transitioning into what could potentially become authoritarian states. Countries which have traditionally been known as defenders of freedom of expression are transforming into hybrid regimes of illiberal democracy.

At this stage, let us take a cue from the historic March 7 speech of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, where he declared that the struggle was for freedom and for independence. The speech is an excellent documentation of what led to our struggle for independence—the failure to develop a democratic and inclusive society. Bangladesh needs more citizens like China’s Dr Li, but it must not treat him in the same way, as an enemy of the state. We do not want a democracy where political rights and freedom of expression are only mere statements; we need to be able to trust our democratic institutions and make our voices heard, especially when those voices could potentially avert future disasters.

This opinion was first published in the Daily Star on 12 February 2019

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