COVID-19: Dr. Zhong Nanshan Is In

 In China, Local, Air, Space, Information, Healthcare and Public Health

The streets of Beijing, one of the world’s most pop­u­lous cities, are strange­ly quiet. Areas where side­walk space was once a pre­mi­um are now sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed. To fur­ther encour­age vol­un­tary house arrest, condo com­plex­es have bar­ri­cad­ed all but one main entrance; coming into the com­plex war­rants a tem­per­a­ture check. A system of makeshift “move­ment passes” has been imple­ment­ed, where res­i­dents have to show a lam­i­nat­ed card to enter their own com­mu­ni­ties.

The stilled streets are a stark con­trast to the con­tin­u­al flow of infor­ma­tion on WeChat, China’s most pop­u­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tion app. Daily bom­bard­ments of arti­cles, images, and videos come from well-mean­ing family, friends, and col­leagues. Much of it is news about the most recent devel­op­ments for COVID-19, as the new strain of coro­n­avirus that emerged in December is offi­cial­ly known. Some of the posts are instruc­tion­al — how to prop­er­ly wash hands, or how to work out at home using house­hold items (laun­dry deter­gent has a new pur­pose). Some con­tent is humor­ous. One video shows a man who has jerry-rigged house­hold appli­ances to sus­pend Coke cans in mid-air and move them in a semi-circle. The man sits at his dining room table, peri­od­i­cal­ly click­ing his own drink with the cans, making toasts to imag­i­nary friends.

Despite the vari­ety and vast­ness of con­tent about the virus, there is still one man who stands out among the chat­ter: Dr. Zhong Nanshan.

Zhong, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist and pul­mo­nolo­gist, is some­times referred to as the nation’s “SARS hero” by Chinese media. In 2003, while SARS left China’s health author­i­ties and gov­ern­ment offi­cials strug­gling to rebuild public trust, Zhong was hailed for his integri­ty. This was large­ly due to his public admis­sion that the virus was not as under con­trol as state media por­trayed. In a post-SARS inter­view, when he was being lauded for his hon­esty, Zhong said, “I couldn’t help myself. I said it’s not all under con­trol.” It was a marked break when the party line had been to down­play the epi­dem­ic.

Despite his advanced age (born in 1936, he was 13 years old when the People’s Republic was found­ed), Zhong has been appoint­ed to lead the National Health Commission’s inves­ti­ga­tion into the novel coro­n­avirus. By exten­sion, he has become the de facto spokesper­son for any infor­ma­tion relat­ed to the ill­ness. Beyond his work track­ing and study­ing COVID-19, he has given mul­ti­ple inter­views to Chinese and English lan­guage media. He is an obvi­ous choice for the posi­tion, as the Communist Party tries to high­light its efforts to manage the crisis in a trans­par­ent, deci­sive manner. Anointing Zhong as the public rela­tions rep is also a strat­e­gy to shift focus and insu­late the cen­tral gov­ern­ment from blame, should that be nec­es­sary.

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Dr. Zhong flexes for the camera in a photo posted to social media.

After SARS made Zhong a house­hold name he remained a public figure, con­tin­u­ing to speak out about health issues from food safety to air pol­lu­tion. In an inter­view with Chinese media, he posed the ques­tion, “What’s the point of being the world’s number one in GDP if eating, drink­ing and breath­ing are all in doubt?” With his record of inci­sive com­men­tary, Zhong estab­lished cred­i­bil­i­ty as some­one who puts public health first. He was also lauded for his own health reg­i­men. Despite qual­i­fy­ing for a senior cit­i­zen dis­count, he has been pho­tographed in muscle tees flex­ing his biceps, swim­ming laps, and shoot­ing hoops.

His image and mes­sages now flood the dig­i­tal sphere, used to bol­ster people’s con­fi­dence that the gov­ern­ment is doing things right this time. China Daily has designed a poster fea­tur­ing a sleep­ing Zhong, which they sug­gest read­ers share. The image is framed by the phrase “The return of the 84-year old fight­er” in bold, red let­ters; below, the text says “[he is] back to the front lines” and “salute this senior aca­d­e­m­ic.”

Unfortunately, COVID-19 bears an unset­tling resem­blance to the public health crisis of 17 years ago. In both cases, a viral res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­ease stemmed from unreg­u­lat­ed con­tact between ani­mals and humans, a wet market that san­i­ta­tion and health offi­cials ignored. And again, there has been gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence in ensur­ing the public was informed of the health threat in a timely manner.

Although Xi Jinping has pri­or­i­tized strength­en­ing the rule of law, the recur­rence of a zoonot­ic virus reveals gaps in san­i­ta­tion reg­u­la­tions. The out­break also demon­strates the danger of exces­sive infor­ma­tion con­trol and the risks asso­ci­at­ed with top-down gov­er­nance when it comes to inform­ing the public of a loom­ing crisis. In an inter­view on CCTV (which will likely be his swan song) Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang point­ed out that “As a local gov­ern­ment offi­cial, I… have to wait for autho­riza­tion before I can release [information].”Another high pro­file case high­light­ing the dan­gers of cen­sor­ship is that of Dr. Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who was one of the first people to raise an alarm about the virus. After one of Li’s posts went viral, he was rep­ri­mand­ed by police and required to sign a “self-crit­i­cism” letter for the charge of dis­turb­ing public order. Li him­self later passed away after con­tract­ing COVID-19, spark­ing public outcry and gov­ern­ment promis­es of an inves­ti­ga­tion.

The Chinese social media sphere is afire with dis­cus­sion of the virus — from legit­i­mate public health advi­sories remind­ing people to wash their hands, to false rumors that a vac­cine has already been dis­cov­ered. There’s also teem­ing crit­i­cism of the gov­ern­ment, which cen­sors have per­mit­ted up to a point, osten­si­bly to allow cit­i­zens to vent.

A poster circulating on social media leverages Dr. Zhong’s image to give “friendly reminders” about stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

Zhong acts as a coun­ter­weight, pro­vid­ing mes­sages that are mostly encour­ag­ing. In the Chinese media, he is por­trayed as a grand­fa­ther­ly figure fight­ing for the people. Multiple media have pub­lished an image of him sleep­ing on a train as he returns from a visit to Wuhan, describ­ing him as a people’s hero fight­ing to beat the virus. In turn, Zhong recent­ly pro­claimed in an inter­view that Wuhan is a heroic city, even get­ting teary eyed.

Zhong has made state­ments assur­ing the public that Chinese offi­cials have been trans­par­ent in han­dling the new coro­n­avirus. Coming from the person who broke with the gov­ern­ment line over SARS, the mes­sage is all the more potent. He has also deflect­ed one of the most per­ni­cious crit­i­cisms of the government’s han­dling of the crises, defend­ing Wuhan offi­cials over the timing of their infor­ma­tion release, saying they could only do so once test results had been ver­i­fied by higher author­i­ties.

In con­trast to other doc­tors, who are sug­gest­ing that the coro­n­avirus will peak in May or June, Zhong ini­tial­ly put forth the opti­mistic pre­dic­tion that it would peak between February 4 – 7. This was later amend­ed to February 12 – 16. He has now sug­gest­ed that the virus will peak at the end of February and plateau in April. He has also said that after the climax, there will be no more large scale increas­es in trans­mis­sions. Zhong has also assured us that this virus will not last as long as SARS, and that due to early detec­tion and early pre­ven­tion, he is con­fi­dent that a full-blown epi­dem­ic will be avoid­ed.

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At this point, it’s too early to tell if these fore­casts will prove true, or too good to be true. But at the very least, Zhong’s reas­sur­ing words are help­ing to head off panic. In the mean­time, people fall back on human’s most fun­da­men­tal abil­i­ties in endur­ing crises — patience and hope.

Marjorie Perry is a free­lance jour­nal­ist whose arti­cles have been pub­lished in The New York Times, The Economist, South China Morning Post, and SupChina, among others.

Source: The Diplomat

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