Fort Report: China's Chernobyl Moment?

Feb 14, 2020

The air pollution in Beijing, China is so bad that it takes years off your life.  Some days it looks like fog.  As a service to the Chinese people, the United States Embassy implemented an air quality tracking monitor.  The Chinese government was not happy.  

In early December, Dr. Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist in the city of Wuhan, alerted his medical school classmates that an unknown illness was sweeping through Wuhan Central Hospital.  The doctor was quickly silenced for “disrupting social order.”  By the paranoid logic of the Chinese Community Party (CCP), disease outbreaks reflect unfavorably on the country’s controlling elites, whose instinct is towards defense, defiance, and preservation.  The CCP assured the public that there was no risk of human-to-human coronavirus transmission.

In our interconnected world, the CCP’s suppression of unpleasant facts helped the coronavirus spread to over twenty countries, including Japan, Vietnam, and the United States.  Since the December outbreak, outside observers speculate that over 60,000 Chinese have been diagnosed with coronavirus––many times more than the numbers who contracted SARS globally in 2002-2003––and far more than initially reported by the Chinese government.  Close to 1500 Chinese have reportedly died from the disease, including Dr. Li, who first called attention to it.  In attempting to control information about the outbreak rather than control the disease itself, the Chinese government ended up controlling neither.   

When President Xi Jinping staked his claim as a Mao-like “leader for life,” fostering expansion of CCP powers to all corners of Chinese society, he did so on the promise that he would ensure the health, wealth, and security of China’s 1.4 billion people.  The people work, the party handles the rest.  The government’s failed response to the coronavirus has given lie to that social contract. 

Over 60 million Chinese are now in virtual lockdown.  As coronavirus spreads to trains, planes, cruise ships and beyond––disrupting supply chains that keep China’s’ communist-capitalist economic system afloat and its people quiescent––other countries are being forced to compensate for China’s failures in detection, transparency, and containment.  

A number of years ago, an Ebola outbreak killed many people in Africa.  Working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, a consortium, including the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), developed a response mechanism.  UNMC is now a leader in the management of public health threats. Due to its holistic partnership with nearby Offutt Air Force Base, there is now a vision for UNMC to significantly enhance biosecurity as part of America’s health care system and national security infrastructure. 

It’s no wonder that UNMC was asked step up to help address the coronavirus.  It has partnered with the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services to provide 57 U.S. citizens in China at risk of coronavirus exposure a safe haven at the Nebraska National Guard’s Camp Ashland.  These persons arrived last Friday and are being monitored daily.  They are not “patients” and are not necessarily infected.  As a precautionary measure, they will be kept in isolation for 14 days to ensure they have not been exposed to the virus.  As of a few hours ago, one person is being moved from Camp Ashland to UNMC because of symptoms developing.  But there has been no conclusive diagnosis yet.  

As we work to contain the spread of coronavirus, its origins remain unclear.  One hypothesis is that there was some wildlife-to-human contact in an open-air market. Though that has not been firmly established, I can tell you that when I was in Beijing, I stepped into an open-air market where the putrid smell made my visit short-lived.  There is legislation now in Congress to get China to do something about these disease vectors, from where SARS was also thought to originate.  

It has been suggested that this is China’s Chernobyl moment.  I am not sure about that, but it would be helpful if China, with its vast power, trusted the voices of its own people and became a trustworthy member of the responsible community of nations.  Right before he died, Dr. Li said, “A healthy society should not just have one voice.”