The Price for Secrecy

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Laila Afifa

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  • Medical workers in protective suits move a patient at an isolated ward of a hospital in Caidian district following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 6, 2020. The total number of deaths on the mainland has now reached 1,016, the National Health Commission said. China Daily via REUTERS

    Medical workers in protective suits move a patient at an isolated ward of a hospital in Caidian district following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 6, 2020. The total number of deaths on the mainland has now reached 1,016, the National Health Commission said. China Daily via REUTERS

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - THE government of Indonesia needs to learn from the mistakes in the way that China handled the new coronavirus. Rather than announcing from the start the appearance of the virus in the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province, the Chinese government covered it up and tried to control the flow of information. After this became impossible, China and the world had to pay a heavy price.

    As of the end of last week, 31,000 people had been infected by the virus and 638 had died. A health unit in Wuhan had detected the existence of the virus on December 12, 2019, but the information was only announced officially on December 31. It was only two weeks later that the Chinese government locked down Wuhan, followed by a number of other cities. At the end of January, the World Health Organization declared a global emergency.

    The Chinese government was very unwise to conceal this information. Chinese police even arrested eight whistleblowers who spread the information and charged them with disturbing public order. One of them was Doctor Li Wenliang, who worked at Wuhan Central Hospital. After examining seven patients suspected of suffering from severe acute respiratory syndrome, Lee warned his colleagues to wear protective clothing to avoid infection. He died on Friday, February 7, after being infected with the Wuhan virus.

    This lack of openness made the virus spread further and more quickly. Its incubation period is relatively short, at only two to 14 days, if it is spread through the air. The potential for transmission between humans grew because of the higher numbers of people entering in leaving China during the December to January holiday period. If they had known sooner, the governments of neighboring countries could have helped prevent the spread of the virus.

    The Chinese lack of openness was seen in their rejection of offers of help from other nations in the form of, for example, sending virologists to produce a vaccine. This reminded us of the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy. The Soviet Union tried to cover up the accident at the nuclear reactor, but this made matters worse - the disaster killed 4,000 people.

    This is the effect of an authoritarian state that uses an asymmetric communication system. The whole world eventually had to bear the burden of the Chinese government's mistakes. Panic spread. The global economy was also hit because of the situation in China. It is believed that it will take a long time to recover from these negative impacts because there is as yet no antivirus.

    The government of Indonesia must not remain indifferent despite the fact that as of February 7, the virus had not spread to this country. The decision by the Indonesian government on Sunday, February 2, to temporarily ban tourists and flights from China was right. The government must not give in to pressure from China for this ban to be lifted. The priority must be the safety of the public. If matters improve, the government can revoke the ban. 

    The spread of the Wuhan virus also must not make us unnecessarily frightened, yet alone trigger discrimination against ethnic Chinese people, victims or those that have been sent home from China. We must show them sympathy because they are people facing problems, not carriers of disease.

    Read the Complete Story in this Week's Edition of Tempo English Magazine