Coronavirus: Real Numbers in China

I’m going to deviate from my usual nerdy posts and talk about something sadder.

The current coronavirus.

Most of the important facts on the virus itself you would probably be able to find online, so I won’t be repeating them. Here‘s a pretty good NY Times article on the following 6 topics, if you want a primer:

  1. How contagious is the virus?
    It seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS.
  2. How deadly is the virus?
    It’s hard to know yet. But the fatality rate is probably less than 3 percent, much less than SARS.
  3. How long does it take to show symptoms?
    Possibly between 2 to 14 days, allowing the illness to go undetected.
  4. How much have infected people traveled?
    The virus spread quickly because it started in a transportation hub.
  5. How effective will the response be?
    The W.H.O. has praised China’s efforts, but critics fear lockdown measures may not be enough.
  6. How long will it take to develop a vaccine?
    A vaccine is still a year away — at minimum.

What I want to talk about, is the demand I see in the comment section under any news article, that China stop trying to cover up how bad the situation really is, admit things are way out of control and maybe start seeking international help.

Several things.

Covering Up

I have to admit that covering things up is a thing that local government does when reporting up, much in the same way that a child might try to hide his wrongdoing from his parent. That is because parental is more or less how the relationship is, between local and central government. And not the kind of parental relationship where parent and kid have civilized discussions on curfews, but the kind where kid wants to hand in good report cards and look good in front of cousins.

In a non-individualist culture, it never is, “I demand that you allocate some of our total resources to me”, but always, “I’m doing fine here, no need to worry about me”. From an individual-first standpoint, it could be pretty hard to grasp the extent people would go to, in order to not be a bother to others, especially their superiors.

Which is also why the topic of any part of China being non-conforming to the central government is such a hot topic that is rarely empathized by non-asians. From a culture-al point of view, it’s like your 6-year-old is acting up and refusing to get up from the floor in a toy store, however absurd that analogy might sound to an outsider, or someone who is more modern/individualist-minded.

Speaking of difference in parental relationships, I’ve come across so many friends here in North America who talked about their alienated relationships with one or both of their parents in a matter-of-fact & not-a-problem sort of way, that I stopped getting mind-blown when I hear one. However, not one of my Chinese friends has ever cut ties with their parents, no matter how much turmoil there was between them. However horrible their fights were, reconciliation is always on the horizon. They are a family, and will always remain one.

Good or bad thing? Depends on who you ask. Different, for sure.

Real Numbers

Which brings us to the topic of the real numbers.

Yes, there are probably many unreported cases from various levels, mostly in Hubei province, where the number of infected people–30k as of Feb 10th–has gone way over the limit of what local medical resources can possibly handle, even with the newly constructed wards that could potentially house a “mere” 2k.

Also, if you don’t test as infected, you don’t count as infected. But the fact is that a vast number of people in Wuhan can’t even get into a hospital to be tested. I’ve read many heart-wrenching stories of people whose family members are growing critically ill, yet ambulances can’t even go fetch them for lack of anywhere to deliver them to.

None of these information is secret. Stories like these flood webo every minute of every hour, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. People everywhere are crying for help everywhere they can, but then again, in any given city, resources are limited, yet allowing them to move freely would be another disaster. After all, quarantines are never meant to help the ones within. For them, other measures would be needed, especially government organized help.

With weibo as well as many pages like these, which aggregates numbers and development of the virus almost real-time, getting intentionally faked numbers is one thing I haven’t worried much about. Especially past the first week or two, after central government cracked down hard on factual reports. Though, I could understand from the point of view of someone who can’t read Chinese, that the amount of news flooding the Chinese social network everywhere would be no more clarifying than a black box.

Things are bad, and will probably keep getting worse for a while before it gets any better. Read Chinese news if you can, even with Google translate. I’m not sure it will help against other worries, but against a general worry of not-hearing-enough-bad-news-from-China, very much likely.

The Way Ahead

The paradox of a pandemic like this is that, when the situation is mild, taking drastic measure is ridiculous. Yet when it’s widely acknowledged to be a good time for taking drastic measures, it’s too late to do so.

I’m no expert on anything medical or social, and I don’t know how this hell would eventually end. Would it be hot weather in a couple of months? Vaccine in a year or longer? Or would it only end when everyone is infected at least once, or even multiple times over?

I hope soon.


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