Category Archives: Medical Care

Is the Coronavirus Outbreak a Pivotal Moment for China?

WASHINGTON – The death last month of China’s whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, weeks after he warned of a new, unnamed coronavirus in an online chatroom, triggered an outpouring of calls for free speech in the world’s most populous authoritarian country.

In online chatrooms, many mourned the doctor’s passing as they talked about the importance of transparency and free speech and demanded an end to the party’s ever-expanding control over all aspects of life. Some saw echoes of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, but others said the Chinese government’s heavy handed controls and massive surveillance apparatus are too effective at neutralizing dissent.

Analysts told VOA Mandarin that not only is this coronavirus moment nothing like the spring protests of 1989, but free speech in China continues to worsen despite Beijing’s rise on the global stage.

Outcry and crackdown

Days after Li’s death, Jan. 31, a sudden knock on his door awakened Su Ping. A 48-year-old who owns two financial companies and lives in Shenzhen, China’s high-tech hub, Su found police officers at the door. They told him someone had reported him for publishing inappropriate statements online.

The officers took Su to the police station. There, he signed a document promising, not to publish inappropriate statements or do anything that would cause panic in the future.

Su said the inappropriate statement was an open letter he signed online mourning Li’s death and calling for freedom of speech and transparency. Snatched from his home in the middle of the night, and well aware of the authorities’ ability to make him disappear, Su said he had little choice but to sign the document.

Inflection point

Authorities warned, then silenced Li Wenliang in early January for revealing the scope of the coronavirus outbreak. On Jan. 1, when Wuhan police announced that Li and seven others had been summoned for admonition, the local health authorities were reporting that there were dozens cases of viral pneumonia of unknown causes without obvious evidence of human-to-human transmission. By the time Li’s death was announced Feb. 7, it was clear that he was correct and authorities had wasted time.

As of Thursday, the virus has spread to at least 88 countries with more than 98,000 confirmed cases and at least 3,300 deaths globally, according to WHO. Most of the deaths, 3,045, and confirmed cases, 80,711, are in China. The majority of those are in Wuhan.

The announcement of Li’s death unleashed a torrent of grief and anger on social media. Millions of Chinese paid tribute to him while condemning the government for valuing stability over people’s well-being.

Su signed one of the open letters, which cites Article 35 of China’s constitution.

It states that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

Su said he signed the open letter because, the quick spread of the virus across the country has something to do with [the lack of] information transparency.

I’m a bit afraid after signing the letter … but someone has to stand up, he said. Otherwise, the situation will never change. If no one is willing to stand up, the whole situation will get worse.

Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer, also signed the letter. Wang told VOA she signed, because our survival rights are under threat. Many people are willing to stand up and speak out, even if they are scared of the possible crackdown from the government.

Wang said that she received a warning from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice.

According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, as of the Feb. 16 deadline for the petition that Su and Wang signed, it had only 665 signatures.

Careful courage

Lao Dongyan, a professor specializing in criminal law at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, described Li’s action on the virus as careful bravery and courage on her public WeChat account.

We worry about the consequences for speaking out, we worry about punishment from work, discrimination from colleagues, or even a visit by the police, she wrote. To keep our jobs, we remain silent, we keep withdrawing, until we are cornered.

She added that Li’s death made her aware that the government does not tolerate speaking out on even the most basic rights. Her post, like many others, was quickly deleted.

Chen Pokong, a U.S.-based political commentator who was a leading activist during the Tiananmen movement, described the current outcry from the public as extremely weak when compared to 1989 when tens of thousands took to the streets.

After 30 years of tight control and relentless crackdown, people are scared, he said.

Wang said today’s strict electronic surveillance makes it impossible for people to unite and stage public protests as they did in 1989.

People are angry, but the key issue is the ubiquitous surveillance cameras and the grid management system. You look at the cameras, [they’re] everywhere. This kind of grid management control, plus the lockdown of the cities … it’s even hard for me to go out to do grocery shopping, to say nothing of going out for protests, she said, adding that she needed a pass to come and go from her neighborhood.

One citizen, two cameras

Chinese authorities have used the outbreak to set up even more rigid controls that expand the country’s current surveillance network based on cell phones and street cameras.

A 2019 report from market research firm International Data Corporation predicts that by 2022, China will have up to 2.76 billion surveillance cameras, or two for each citizen.

Wang said that with such controls in place, she does not support protests by common people.

I do not think it’s wise for the bare-handed protesters to go against the modern weapons systems. There is no need to do that, and you can never win, she told VOA.

To contain the virus, China has locked down major cities and stepped up neighborhood checks nationwide. Chen said these measures serve two purposes for the Communist Party.

On the one hand, they thought it could block the virus from spreading. On the other hand, it allows them to lock the people down, preventing them from going out on the streets and standing together, he said.

The lockdown of the cities may not be able to block the virus, but it efficiently separates the people, making it hard for them to organize a meaningful front to speak out about poor governance.

Narrative control

Beyond physical controls in Wuhan and other cities, the party is controlling public opinion.

The government has framed the narrative such that the people that are primarily taking the blame are local level officials, said Rory Truex, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

China’s governing system is one of fragmented authoritarianism, he said, where responsibility for making and implementing policies is spread across many levels of government. This structure allows for easy scapegoating in times of crisis.

On Feb. 13, the central government ousted Jiang Chaoliang, Hubei’s highest-ranking party official, for mishandling the outbreak.

Truex added that in the West there’s a tendency to underestimate the level of support for the Communist Party itself, especially the central leadership and someone like Xi.

If people were going to be on the street, it would have happened by now. People can be angry about something, but it’s different to go from anger to an actual social movement, he said.

Pent-up anger

Chinese media reports focus on the people’s commitment to fighting the outbreak, the bravery of medical staff, government feats such as building a new hospital for Wuhan in 10 days, and most importantly, the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

Wang Juntao, a dissident who participated in Tiananmen, said the outbreak won’t tarnish Xi’s reputation because so many people have been brainwashed.

The patient will say ‘Two people in our family were infected due to Wuhan mayor’s mishandling [of the outbreak], but President Xi came to our rescue,’ Wang said.

Still, exiled Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng told VOA that because the outbreak has touched the bottom line … the Chinese people will eventually hold the government accountable, by means that might not be peaceful, rational and non-violent.

If the government makes Xi Jinping a scapegoat, that would mean something, he said. If the high-ranking officials are not able to do this, the pent-up anger will definitely find a way out. If you don’t release it, it will explode.

Source: Voice of America

China: Coronavirus Vaccine Could Be Ready for ‘Emergency Use’ in April

Weeks after its scientists released the sequence of the coronavirus, China says the first vaccines could be in emergency use next month.

A top Chinese health official said Friday the country was moving full steam ahead to develop vaccines for the coronavirus, which has infected more than 100,000 people and killed upwards of 3,000 worldwide.

According to our estimates, we are hopeful that in April some of the vaccines will enter clinical research or be of use in emergency situations, said Zheng Zhongwei, director of the National Health Commission’s Science and Technology Development Center.

Zheng said dozens of China’s vaccine research institutions are being involved, and the development of different types of vaccines also are moving forward.

Developing vaccines that are safe and effective takes time, investment, and good science. For a coronavirus like the one that causes COVID-19, the process comes with even more challenges. The testing alone for its safety and efficacy will take 12 to 18 months or more, officials say.

Under China’s law, vaccines developed for major public health emergencies can be deployed for urgent use under specified conditions, if the National Medical Products Administration considers that the benefits of the treatment outweigh the risks.

Zheng did not elaborate on under what kind of condition the vaccine could be used on humans.

China announced in late February that it could begin clinical trials as early as April.

In the U.S., in a record-breaking pace, Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna shipped its vaccine last month to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to begin human testing.

Scientists say the world has a long way to go in the race to find a vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a recent White House briefing the whole process of approving an effective vaccine is going to take at least a year.

Source: Voice of America

Thai Health Official: No Mandatory Coronavirus Quarantine for High-Risk Country Arrivals

BANGKOK – An official at Thailand’s Health Ministry on Friday denied news reports that the government had ordered the compulsory quarantine of all arrivals from the four countries hardest hit by the novel coronavirus whether or not they were infected or showing symptoms, after days of mixed messages.

The government labeled China, Iran, Italy and South Korea — along with Hong Kong and Macau — “dangerous communicable disease areas” on Thursday. The same day, Reuters news agency reported that all arrivals from those areas would have to quarantine themselves for 14 days, either at home or in their hotels, citing Health Ministry spokesman Rungrueng Kitphati.

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul had announced the compulsory quarantine for arrivals from the countries and territories on Facebook on Tuesday — along with France, Germany, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan — but deleted his post soon after and closed the account the next day. He told local media that the list needed revising.

On Friday afternoon, Tanarak Pipat, deputy director-general of the Health Ministry’s disease control department, told VOA that there was no mandatory quarantine order for arrivals from any country for the time being.

“No, not yet,” he said. “We did not quarantine the travelers.”

Asked whether the government might yet impose a compulsory quarantine on arrivals from any country, Tanarak replied, “maybe, just maybe.”

The AFP news agency reported that the government was “recommending” that arrivals from the four countries self-quarantine, however, and insisted that they report to authorities on their health status daily.

Thailand has also been moving ahead tentatively with “social distancing” efforts to cut down on large crowds through which the virus might spread. Authorities have postponed one of the country’s largest sporting events, the MotoGP 2020, scheduled for later this month over outbreak fears and suspended the full-moon parties on Koh Phangan, which draw thousands of revelers a month, until further notice.

Thailand was the first country outside of China to report an infection of Covid-19, as the new virus is officially known. But the country has since kept new cases in check. It reported its 48th confirmed case on Friday, a British man who arrived via Hong Kong. Of the 48 patients, 31 have recovered and one has died.

The concern the World Health Organization (WHO) has with any possible blanket policy of compulsory quarantine is its risk or looking like and in effect acting as an international travel ban, which it advises against.

“Our formal line on this is that it’s not really recommended,” Dr. Rick Brown, health and emergency program manager for the WHO in Thailand, told VOA.

“Until now there’s really been insufficient evidence to really inform a very, very considered scientific debate about it. But on the basis of the evidence that’s available so far, it seems like travel restrictions don’t necessarily work. And they do also have these collateral disadvantages.”

He said travel restrictions imposed during the Ebola virus outbreak that hit parts of Africa some years ago hurt efforts to fight the disease by making it harder for health professionals and medical supplies to reach the affected area.

“So I think it’s a combination of: Is there very good evidence that the measures that are actually going to be effective in slowing the spread of the disease balanced against all the kind of collateral, negative impacts that a restriction on travel will have?” he said.

Brown said he was impressed with the Thai government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis to date, praising its laboratories, coordination between agencies, emergency operations centers and case follow-up.

Despite those efforts, the crisis has taken a heavy toll on Thailand’s already flagging economy, which draws heavily on tourist dollars. The tourism authority says the outbreak could cost the country 15% of the roughly 40 million foreign arrivals the country sees each year. Forecasters expect GDP growth in 2020 to dip below 2% owing partly to the virus.

Source: Voice of America

From Manila to Malaysia, Southeast Asia Is Moving to Beat Impacts of Coronavirus

TAIPEI, TAIWAN – Singapore was hit a month ago with a surge in novel coronavirus cases that originated in China but capped the spread. Malaysia and Thailand watched beach tourists drain away as Chinese were required to avoid travel. Factory slowdowns in China caused by workers staying home to dodge the disease cut demand for Indonesian commodities.

Nevertheless, analysts in Southeast Asia expect the region of 654 million to weather this outbreak. The outcome matters because the flow of tourists, capital and raw materials into Southeast Asia is more contingent on China than is the case elsewhere.

Vietnam and the Philippines expect more capital from foreign investors fatigued by risks in China, for example. Southeast Asian governments are cutting interest rates and approving economic stimulus for companies shaken by loss of business. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is working toward a massive trade liberalization deal with China and Japan to stoke commerce.

Obviously there’s going to be impact, but again we have the China-plus-one here, said Ralf Matthaes, founder of the Infocus Mekong Research consultancy in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, referring to investors with plants in China hoping to diversify into a second country.

There’s lots of people who are moving their factories here, so I think all [the coronavirus] does is emphasize that you’ve got to further decentralize your manufacturing bases, Matthaes said.

Southeast Asian manufacturers may diversify sources of supply, too, said Tham Siew Yean, professor emeritus at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. But this will impact costs since alternative sources, where available are more expensive, she said.

Several Southeast Asian countries hope interest rate cuts will stimulate corporate lending.

Indonesia, a coal, gas and rubber supplier, dropped rates to 4.75% last month against the risk of falling commodity prices. Chinese manufacturers usually buy those raw materials but orders slowed when many workers stayed home last month after the Lunar New Year.

Thailand lowered its rate to 1% last month because of its large exposure to Chinese tourism and reliance on Chinese auto manufacturing, Moody’s Analytics said in a February 26 research note. Malaysia could cut rates as well as consumer demand falls, the note says.

Singapore has reported the region’s biggest single-country outbreak, 98 cases, but media reports credit the city-state for getting its caseload contained. Singapore also raised government spending by 7%, despite a budget deficit, across two relief packages totaling $4 billion.

Malaysia and Indonesia came out with their own stimulus packages to combat impacts from the disease officially called Covid-19.

The Philippine economy will probably grow at least 6% this year because of rate cuts and infrastructure spending due to last through 2022, said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank. The Asian Development Bank had forecast last year that the archipelago’s GDP would rise 6.2%.

New roads, airports and power generation projects, worth $180 billion, are expected to make the Philippines more attractive to manufacturers.

If we play our cards right by doing more infrastructure spending and hasten the pace, we can still grow at 6%, Ravelas said.

Responses such as these preceded a meeting Monday among senior ASEAN officials. Their economic ministers had been scheduled to meet this month in Las Vegas, but has been postponed.

ASEAN said last year that it would sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and possibly India at this year’s session. The deal would cut tariffs, a boon to exporters.

This will widen integration and as one of the largest international grouping it will provide a strong signal for the support of international trade despite the negative impact on trade from the COVID. Tham said.

Source: Voice of America

Singapore’s Assistance To Myanmar To Fight COVID-19

In response to a request from the Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports, the Singapore Government has contributed 3,000 diagnostic tests and two polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines for the detection of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Ambassador to Myanmar, Ms Vanessa Chan, handed over the supplies to Director of Myanmar National Health Laboratory Dr Htay Htay Tin today, at Yangon International Airport.

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Singapore

Did China Send Military Jets Near Rival Taiwan to Show It’s on Top of Coronavirus?

TAIPEI – Although two flybys in as many days this month by Chinese military planes alarmed Taiwan’s defense ministry, analysts say China was playing more to a wider audience, including the United States and a domestic population worried about an economically destabilizing virus outbreak.

Taiwan’s air force scrambled F-16 jets as Chinese fighters and bombers flew around half of Taiwan Sunday morning after passing through the Luzon Strait and turning north up the island’s east coast, the National Defense Ministry in Taipei said. More aircraft flew past the next day, and one crossed into Taiwan’s airspace until Taiwanese F-16s warned them away, the ministry said.

China has used fighters and bombers before to pester Taiwan, the ministry said. This month, Chinese leadership probably wanted to show Beijing-leery Western allies that it’s still strong despite the virus, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in New Taipei City.

Putting pressure on Taiwan is a side effect, Huang said. The current Chinese move, first it wanted to show the world that even with the coronavirus the People’s Liberation Army still have time and capability to do the regular training far away from their coastline, he added.

New Coronavirus Outbreak

Spread of the new coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, discovered in China in December, began alarming much of the world in late January, prompting multiple countries to block arrivals from China amid fear Beijing’s government was covering up the true extent of the disease. Citizens of other Asian countries have avoided going outside and hoarded nonperishables, out of fear of a larger cross-border outbreak.

Chinese officials repressed information about the virus in December, University of California, Berkeley, School of Information research scientist Xiao Qiang said in a commentary Monday.

When the true scale of the epidemic finally became clear, Chinese public opinion reflected a predictable mix of anger, anxiety, and despair, he said.

A show of military power might ease people’s anger onshore and off, scholars say.

[Chinese President] Xi Jinping has to demonstrate he is still in control, he is still a strong leader in China, even though he is facing tremendous challenges as a result of this virus outbreak, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.

Broader maritime mission

China is increasingly frequently sending naval ships and military aircraft outside its immediate coastal waters to counter U.S. influence in Asia, analysts say. Its growth of a blue-water navy during the past decade represents one example. The latest flybys show China is sticking to a regular training program to learn more about certain tracts of sea, Huang said.

China hopes to upgrade training, exercises and patrols in the more distant waters of East Asia, Yang said.

It would also counter the United States and Japan. Those two allies regularly pass ships and planes through Asian waters to keep Chinese expansion in check. Three U.S. aircraft including a pair of B-52 bombers flew close to Taiwan Wednesday after the Chinese aircraft movement, Taiwan’s defense ministry said.

Indirect warning to Taiwan

This month’s Chinese flybys still effectively warned Taipei to avoid steps such as declaring legal independence from China, said Shane Lee, a retired political science professor from Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan.

They try to scare Taiwan not to do anything that to them is very drastic, like announcing Taiwan independence, Lee said.

China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and insists that the two sides eventually unite. President Tsai Ing-wen, who Taiwanese voters elected in 2016 and again in January, opposes Beijing’s idea for a one country, two systems form of rule. That system would put Beijing in charge and give Taiwan a degree of local autonomy.

Taiwan’s Republic of China constitution still binds it to China, and Tsai did not declare independence after her reelection last month.

Chinese aircraft flew military planes near Taiwan more than 10 times in Tsai’s first term and crossed a median line between the two sides once last year.

Tsai’s government has slammed China this month over blocking Taiwan from participation in the World Health Organization, which is helping to cope with the virus outbreak. China bars Taiwan from membership in international organizations that require statehood as a prerequisite.

Source: Voice of America

US Health Officials Press China to Accept American Experts to Help with Coronavirus

WASHINGTON – U.S. health officials again pressed China to accept U.S. expert help to work on the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The World Health Organization sent an advance team of international experts to China on Monday, but it is not yet known if Americans were part of that group. The WHO did not respond to VOA’s question about the make up of the team.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, Principal Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington that CDC has provided names for the WHO team and we’re usually part of WHO teams.

Schuchat emphasized American epidemiologists, virologists, infection control experts, quarantine experts have a lot to offer, and that it can be very helpful for China to have outside experts in the midst of an epidemic.

American experts are expected to learn more about the disease as they fight it.

It is very critical right now for us to understand all the different routes of transmission, the full severity, which can help us with our models of what the impact may be, if this spreads to many countries, said Schuchat.

Since early January, the U.S. has been offering to send experts to China to help with the coronavirus outbreak.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on January 6 first offered to send an American team, and on January 27, the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar reiterated the offer to his Chinese counterpart Dr. Ma Xiaowei.

After WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus secured Chinese President Xi Jinping’s agreement to accept an international team of experts during their meeting on January 28, U.S. officials moved to incorporate the American group of experts to the WHO mission to China.

My understanding is that in the latest discussions there’s been receptivity [on the part of China], said Schuchat.

Dr. Daniel Chertow, head of Emerging Pathogens Section at the National Institute of Health, also stressed the need to send American experts to China at a coronavirus conference at the Hudson Institute Monday.

We certainly would like our experts to be present and to be part of what’s happening on the ground to answer some of the really important fundamental questions, said Chertow. He mentioned the fatality rate and asymptomatic spread as areas that need further research.

Chertow also pointed out the U.S. and China could coordinate developing vaccines and therapeutics rather than have duplicative efforts.

American health experts also urged China to tap into America’s expertise in controlling epidemics.

Lawrence Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University and Director of the WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, told VOA Mandarin Service that China should invite U.S. CDC experts and give them full access.

Gostin noted, I would call in a significant contingent of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, U.S. CDC and other very experienced epidemic fighters. I would have them in force on the ground with full access to all information, independently verifying information so that there were true international partners with China working on this outbreak.

Meanwhile, the first group of Americans evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the new coronavirus, are expected to be released Tuesday following quarantine.

Schuchat at the NPC briefing said today is the 14th day of the quarantine of individuals who were on the first charter flight returning from Wuhan province, they’re currently being assessed to make sure they remain symptom-free and then we hope that they’ll be released to travel to their home today.

Schuchat explained the 195 people who arrived in the U.S. on January 29 have been monitored closely during the two weeks and have not come down with the virus. The group, mostly U.S. State Department employees and their families, were evacuated from Wuhan aboard a U.S. government-chartered cargo jet and flown to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County east of Los Angeles.

Also on Tuesday, the 13th case of coronavirus in the U.S. was confirmed in California in a person under quarantine after returning from Wuhan.

But Schuchat stressed U.S.’s containment strategy has been successful so far. She explained the 13 individuals in the U.S. had very mild symptoms and that there’s not been widespread transmission as 11 of them traveled to the Hubei province and two others had household contact with one of the cases.

Source: Voice of America