You’re not supposed to kick someone who is already down. Under the current dire circumstances, however, mainland Chinese authorities, who have been left so helplessly supine by a lethal new coronavirus tearing its way through their country, nevertheless deserve a swift, hard kick in the haunches.

Nearly two decades after SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which originated in China and killed nearly 1,000 people worldwide, here we go again with another horrifying reminder of the egregious state of food safety, health care and, last but certainly not least, politics on the mainland.

wuhan flu virus mask face mask facemask
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

No wonder so many Hongkongers have long wanted to keep an arm’s length (now stretching to a border’s length) from their mainland counterparts. The number of confirmed cases for the new pneumonia-like virus this week surpassed those stricken by SARS in 2002-2003, and the virus shows no signs of slowing down.

Shockingly, the initial official response to the outbreak – whose epicentre appears to be Wuhan, a city of 11 million people that is the capital of central Hubei province – had all of the tragic hallmarks of the breakdown in responsibility and accountability that greeted the SARS epidemic.

The result, if eyewitness accounts from Wuhan are to be believed, has been dead bodies within hospital corridors while doctors and nurses turn infected patients away from wards already full beyond capacity.

Infectious disease ward
Infectious disease ward.

Meanwhile, the virus continues to spread like wildfire. Hong Kong infectious disease experts say that mainland authorities are grossly underreporting the number of confirmed cases, which at present officially stands at nearly 11,000 with 260 deaths recorded, although almost certainly tens of thousands more have been stricken.

Wuhan and at least 15 other mainland cities are now in lockdown, prohibiting a combined population of 50 million from travelling during the Lunar New Year.

These citywide quarantines have failed, however, to prevent the virus from travelling to many other Chinese cities, among them Hong Kong, which has 12 confirmed cases to date, and to an ever-increasing number of countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Germany, France, the United States and Canada.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping. Photo: Kremlin.

As the new epidemic spins out of control, China’s top brass has stepped into the growing fiasco. President Xi Jinping has given a speech declaring war on the “demon” virus, and Premier Li Keqiang flew into Wuhan this week to take charge of the urgent campaign to control it.

But this sudden flurry of aggressive action by the Chinese leadership, accompanied by promises of increased transparency, comes in the wake of damnable delay and fatal incompetence on the part of officials who carried on pretty much with business as usual after the virus was first discovered.

The costly SARS disaster was supposed to have marked the last time Chinese officials went into “conceal and deny” mode in the face of a health crisis threatening, not just 1.4 billion Chinese people but also the entire world.

Yet it was déjà vu in Wuhan last month as the Year of the Rat approached and dozens of cases of the new coronavirus turned up. Nothing was done to stop 40,000 families from attending a Spring Festival banquet, although authorities (both local and central) were well aware of the rapidly proliferating number of infections at the time.

Equally baffling, in the days before the January 23 Wuhan lockdown, local officials were doing their level best to attract more tourists to the city by giving away hundreds of thousands of free-admission coupons for special events to be staged during the holiday.

Li Keqiang Wuhan
Li Keqiang in Wuhan. Photo: GovCN.

Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang has admitted his administration was far too slow to acknowledge the crisis and reveal important information that could have helped to safeguard the public. He has offered to resign, and a number of lower-level Communist Party officials tasked with disease control have been suspended from their duties.

It should come as no surprise, however, that low-altitude functionaries are reluctant to act in a system that is based on top-down central control. Indeed, it is safe to say that low-ranking bureaucrats are not allowed to act, especially in a crisis, without first receiving instructions from central authorities. But the wheels of the Communist Party bureaucracy grind slowly and, in the meantime, more people get sick and die.

If lessons from SARS had been properly learned 17 years ago, this present crisis might not have happened and, if it had, most certainly would have been far better contained.

SARS 2003
Bronze statues inside Hong Kong Park commemorating medical staff who died during the 2003 SARS epidemic in Hong Kong. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

First of all, no 21st-century wet market should be trading in carcasses and live specimens of wild animals ranging from snakes to bamboo rats to civet cats to ostriches and porcupines.

Experts are now uncertain of the precise origin of the new coronavirus, but the Wuhan wet market that was initially believed to be ground zero is well known for its sale of such exotic animals, as are many other such markets serving as virtual laboratories for disease all across China. SARS is thought to be an animal virus that jumped to humans, and the Wuhan virus is suspected to be the same.

Secondly, although Xi and Li are now calling for a full-on coordinated response to the crisis and transparency going forward, the fact is that they preside over an authoritarian political culture which thrives on fear and encourages duplicity and concealment among lower-level lackeys afraid of losing their iron-rice-bowl jobs for any unauthorised act of independent decision-making.

gov't press conference

The response to any serious local crisis, therefore, is almost inevitably paralysis, which is what happened in the crucial initial stages of SARS and, tragically, what has happened again in Wuhan.

Lamentably, despite its status as a free and open special administrative region of China with a mini-constitution that guarantees its autonomy in local affairs, Hong Kong has also fallen victim to this kowtowing culture of fear and obedience to central authorities, which Xi has made an emphatic point of bolstering and enforcing since he became general party secretary of the Communist Party in 2012 and then the country’s seventh president in 2013.

There is no greater testimony to Hong Kong’s subsumption into mainland political culture than the prolonged administrative stone-walling we have seen throughout nearly nine consecutive months of anti-government protests that have produced million-strong marches and, of course, a great deal of outrage, anger and violence.

The protests continue, as does the Hong Kong government’s Beijing-dictated non-response to the protesters’ demands.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: Screenshot.

Finally, a question: where was Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor when the grave threat of the Wuhan virus became apparent?

Answer: In Davos, Switzerland, hobnobbing with the world’s rich and famous at the World Economic Forum.

As the crisis worsened, she had a choice: stay with them or come home to us.

She chose to stay as her underlings in Hong Kong dithered and dawdled.

Correction 2/2: Owing to a typo inserted in the editing process, a previous version of this piece inaccurately stated the number of confirmed cases of infection. 

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.