In late December 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist from Wuhan Central Hospital, sent a WeChat message to his group of former medical students. He said 7 people with severe respiratory and flu-like symptoms had recently been hospitalized.
One thing they had in common, besides the symptoms, was that they had visited a "wet market" (a market with live or currently killed animals) the previous week.
The disease had a strange resemblance to SARS, but it also had a new aspect: Could it be the outbreak of a new disease? If so, what should have been done? But before any of the doctors could act or alert the local media, the chat conversation was shut down by the Wuhan police and Li was accused of spreading rumors. The chat was not in a public forum - it was an exchange in a closed group. But can we say that there is a private conversation in the era of global control of personal freedoms, especially in countries like China that exercise technological supremacy in this field?
The police gave Li a warning accusing him of spreading false information and disturbing public order. He ordered him to sign a document withdrawing his warning and stop telling people that this virus existed, or he would be put in jail. So he did.
Just over a month later, on February 7, Li died.
The official cause? The coronavirus, contracted in the same hospital where he worked. He had been infected while trying to treat sick patients who had continued pouring into the hospital throughout January.
At this point, the CCP was unable to deny the existence of the virus as hundreds and thousands of people had started getting sick. Travel restrictions and quarantines went into effect, but it was already too late. Schools and businesses have been closed. People remained confined to homes. And the economy has taken the worst blow that could lead to a depression.
How different could our current situation be if Li's warning had been heeded instead of silenced him?
“People claim that China has done a good job of dealing with the virus. I do not agree"Said Alex Gladstein, Chief Strategy Officer at the Human Rights Foundation. "The reason we have this global pandemic right now is because of Chinese censorship and the totalitarian nature of the government."
What can we learn from the responses of various governments to this pandemic? We keep an eye on our freedoms as this crisis continues to unfold.
Open, competent or neither?
The rate at which this disease spread to different countries varied wildly, as did the number of deaths relative to recoveries. Western Europe is home to some of the richest and most powerful countries on Earth, but now is not a great time to live there. And in the United States it is about to get even worse.
"Given half a century of research, the correlation is strong: democracies manage public health disasters much better than dictatorships"Gladstein said citing an February 18 article on The Economist, which examines epidemic deaths relative to GDP per person in democracies and non-democracies.
Taiwan also did well, as did South Korea, although their systems of government work very differently from Singapore. So what factors may have contributed to how quickly the virus spread and how hard the economy was hit in these nations?
There are two axes that are relevant: one is the opening of a company and the other is its competence. An open but less competent government is likely to perform poorly in a public health crisis (or any crisis), as is a competent but closed government.
"In the long run, some of the best performing companies are open and competent democracies like Korea and Taiwan," Gladstein said. Taiwan is a somewhat surprising example given its proximity to China and the amount of travel between the two.
Success here, failure there
With a population of 23 million people and the first case confirmed on January 21, Taiwan has had 306 cases and 5 deaths to date. They immediately began screening for people from China and stopped nearly all travel arriving from China within weeks of the outbreak, creating an alert system that integrated data from the national health insurance database with immigration databases. and customs (this involved a degree of privacy violation and limitation of personal freedoms that would probably not put us at ease). High-risk people were quarantined at home, and the government quickly demanded the production of millions of masks. There was certainly less panic and more trust in the government, and that paints a picture of what we should all aspire to.
Iran is on the other side of the spectrum both in terms of competence and openness; have recorded over 41.000 cases and over 2.700 deaths. Thousands of people have died in Iran, but we will never know the truth because there is no free press there. Then there is China. In addition to the blockades imposed by “neighborhood leaders” and the police, the government has increased its already heavy surveillance of citizens, monitoring people's locations with apps like AliPay and WeChat. A color coding system was implemented indicating people's health status and level of risk and their movement was restricted accordingly.
They used the full power of the state to reduce the virus, and from what we know, they have been relatively effective. But this comes with two caveats: a, China's measures to limit personal freedoms would be "unthinkable" in a democracy. Due, we cannot take their data at face value due to the lack of a free press or independent watchdogs in the country (also the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post they were expelled from China on March 17. It may have been a kind of retaliation for the recent move by the US State Department to limit the number of Chinese journalists allowed to work in the United States for a handful of Chinese state-owned media.)
Surveillance = Success?
La South Korea e Singapore, the world's other two containment success stories, have both used a form of surveillance to fight the virus.
In Korea, the 2015 MERS outbreak led to a law that allows the government to use smartphone and credit card data to see where people have been, then share that information (stripped of identifying details) on apps in a way that that people who may have been infected can be tested and controlled.
Singapore also moved well
The government has launched a contact tracking app called TraceTogether. He sent text messages to people who were ordered to stay home. It asked them to respond with their real-time GPS location. To date, Singapore has reported 879 cases and 3 deaths.
Does the success of these countries and their use of surveillance mean that we have to give up some of our privacy to fight this disease? Would the Americans and Europeans be willing to do so if it meant this terrible ordeal would be over sooner? And how do we know where to draw the line?
The temporary can be tricky
Gladstein, the answer is simple. "We don't need a police state to combat public health disasters"he said. "We should be very wary of governments telling us that they must take away our personal freedoms to protect us and that they will only take those freedoms away for a limited time."
Many personal data are already collected on each of us, every day. which ads we click on, how long we spend on different websites, what terms we search for and also where we go and how long we stay there. Would it be so terrible to apply all that data to stem the spread of a disease that caused our economy to crash?
A significant problem with the security measures taken during trial periods is that often those measures that limit personal freedoms are not scaled down when society returns to normal.
During the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the government said the new security measures were temporary. but they turned out to be permanent ", said Gladstein. Yuval Noah Harari he writes on Financial Times: “Temporary measures have a nasty habit of staying, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon. Many of the emergency measures adopted during the war of independence in 1948 were never lifted."
Test, transparency, trust
This is fundamental: Although surveillance has been a key part of Taiwan, Korea and Singapore's success, widespread testing, consistent messaging, transparency and trust have all been equally critical. Andrew Leonard he wrote in an excellent article about Wired: “In the US, the Trump administration has ordered federal health authorities to treat high-level discussions about the coronavirus as classified material. In Taiwan, the government has gone to great lengths to keep citizens well informed about every aspect of the epidemic. "
In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in has reduced his communications with the public to a minimum. Health officials updated the public on the status of the pandemic twice a day. The government of Singapore provided clear and consistent updates on the number and origin of cases in the country.
Gladstein reiterated that democracies are more suitable than dictatorships in managing public health crises because people must be able to innovate and collaborate without fear of limitations on personal freedoms.
The US response to the coronavirus has been dismal. And this despite a high level of openness that includes democratic elections, a lot of emphasis on personal rights and freedoms, and a "free" press. To date, over 100 million Americans are forced into their homes. Testing, trust and transparency are all still lacking. What will the United States do to stem the spread of Covid-19? What will they do when more and more people become seriously ill in the coming days and weeks?
"Secrecy, lies and censorship only help the virus," Gladstein said. "We want open societies". This "open" society and its personal freedoms are about to be tested, and great.
Bianca Stan - Graduated in Law, writer with several books published in Romania and journalist for the group “Anticipatia” (Bucharest), she focuses on the impact of exponential technologies, military robotics and their intersection with global trends, urbanization and long-term geopolitics. He lives in Naples.