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Not a time to worry about image

The author is a Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The inflection point of the “Wuhan flu” crisis was on Friday, Jan. 17. The number of diagnoses that had remained at 45 suddenly increased by 17 in one day, and over the weekend, more than 200 people were diagnosed. The rate of increase grew quickly. The total number of diagnoses grew from 309 on Jan. 21 to 440 on the 22nd and more than 600 on the 23rd.


In the process, information restriction and media control by the Chinese government was witnessed. The health authorities of Wuhan released the changes in the number of patients themselves. When the diagnoses increased rapidly, they did not explain when, where and how the patients had contracted the virus. Minimal information about those who had died was released. There is no way of knowing the ages, genders and conditions of the patients who have died. Chinese media wrote about the reports of the health authorities as they were, without any additional reporting or information found from investigating.

As a reporter, I had to focus on subtle nuances of the government reports. When the first patient died, the place of contraction was mentioned. When the second patient died, the age and gender were mentioned. Beginning with the third, no such information was provided. So I assumed that it was likely that the number of deaths would rise.

When the number of confirmed diagnoses surpassed 300 on Jan. 21, the Chinese government brought in severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) hero Zhong Nanshan, an 84-year-old academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Through him, the Chinese government officially acknowledged the possibility of human to human transmission of the coronavirus for the first time, which was the sensitive issue.

By bringing in the doctor who resolved the SARS crisis in the past rather than a government official, China conveyed the message that the new flu outbreak could be resolved. Chinese media raved about the appearance. The next day, a photo of Zhong with paperwork in front of him on a high-speed train to Wuhan was all over Chinese media. Comments like “The government did not abandon Wuhan residents” and “We won SARS, lets not give up hope” were posted.

The people who rang warning signals about the Wuhan coronavirus were outside of China. A research team at Imperial College London raised the possibility that more than 1,700 patients may have already contracted coronavirus. CNN reported on the black market trade of wild animals in markets in Wuhan and investigated the cause of the outbreak. University of Hong Kong professor Yuen Kwok-yung analyzed that Wuhan flu could become an all-out epidemic like SARS.

A visitor to Ditan Hospital in Beijing, where five confirmed patients had been admitted, was not aware that Wuhan coronavirus patients were being treated there. What the Chinese government needs to prevent is the damage, not anxiety.
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