The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s coronavirus lockdown — brought to you by authoritarianism

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Since China first announced the emergence of patients with pneumonia-like symptoms in the city of Wuhan in late December, officials there have made clear they are eager to avoid the international backlash that followed China’s lack of transparency during the deadly SARS outbreak in 2002.

Then, China lost credibility on the global stage for denying the existence of the virus. This time, the World Health Organization has praised China’s rapid response and transparency, and held off on declaring the outbreak of a coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern, a special designation reserved for the most serious and deadly of disease outbreaks.

President Trump tweeted that China was “working very hard” to contain the outbreak. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency,” he wrote on Friday. Even Pope Francis weighed in, calling China’s response a “great commitment by the Chinese community that has already been put in place to combat the epidemic.”

But as Chinese officials scrambled to control the spread of the virus, they also moved ahead with a controversial travel ban, effectively locking down tens of millions of people to try to contain the outbreak. The move came at the peak of a busy season in China, when hundreds of millions of people typically travel for annual Spring Festival celebrations.

“Only the Chinese government could implement draconian measures to such a large scale,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It might be an example of resilience of the authoritarian state, especially in a crisis setting, but there is no strong evidence supporting that the approach will be effective.”

The ban expanded in recent days to affect more than 50 million people in 16 cities, including Wuhan, where most of the cases have occurred. In some places, flights have been canceled and public transit has been suspended, paving the way for potentially severe economic consequences. Meanwhile, construction workers are rushing to build three new hospitals with 1,000 beds each in a matter of days to try to accommodate patients being treated for the virus.

All the while, the number of cases has steadily climbed. As of Sunday, China’s national health commission reported that 2,744 people were infected. Eighty deaths were reported — the vast majority among older people with preexisting health conditions. Huang said it was too soon to know how the lockdown would affect the outbreak, noting that “the results very likely will be mixed at best.”

Five cases have been confirmed in the United States, and cases also have been confirmed in France, Australia, Vietnam, Nepal, South Korea, Japan and several other places in Asia.

On Saturday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping warned of the “accelerating spread” of the virus. “As long as we are resolute … we can win the battle of controlling the epidemic,” he told party leaders, according to state-run news broadcaster CCTV.

But Huang cautioned that when extreme measures such as a travel ban are taken in the face of a public health crisis, they are often not evidence-based and occur without advance planning, which can cause serious side effects. In Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, there are reportedly “shortages of medical supplies, overwhelming of public hospitals flooded by patients who are afraid, burnout of the health-care workers,” he said.

“And I think this creates, what I would call, this emotional response, which tends to exaggerate the actual risk posed by the virus,” he added.

As my colleague Anna Fifield reported from Beijing last week, doctors in the most overwhelmed hospitals in Wuhan are struggling to cope with the number of patients in their wards. One doctor died of a heart attack on the job. Some are wearing adult diapers because they do not have time to run to the bathroom. Others have contracted the virus themselves. “There are not enough hospitals and not enough beds, not enough doctors and not enough nurses, not enough rubber gloves and not enough face masks,” she wrote.

Jude Blanchette, the Freeman chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China’s lack of a free press is probably further fueling fear during the outbreak. “China doesn’t have any credible media organizations, really, given the state dominance, which means that rumors are rampant,” he said, adding that “even accurate scientific pronouncements coming out from leadership are often times distrusted.”

However, Blanchette said, he is reluctant to think the outbreak will serve as an “existential crisis” to Xi’s grip on power.

“The Communist Party has been putting out fires for 70 years,” he said. “There’s resiliency within the system and especially at the top, and one of the resilient factors is that it’s quite good at swiftly assigning blame at lower-level officials and canning them.”

Huang said some officials in China might even view this outbreak as “an opportunity to beef up their legitimacy when they portray themselves as being decisive and as being wise.”

If they effectively control the outbreak and dramatically decrease the number of cases in a short time, he said, “they would claim to be the winners.”