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The Long View

Bureaucracy in the social media age

Journalist John Sudworth tweeted a photo of a long line of embassy cars outside China’s foreign ministry, where he said ambassadors had been summoned to a meeting. According to Sudworth, the main message of the ministry was that China has things under control, and therefore there’s no need for foreign governments to be planning the evacuation of their nationals from Wuhan. The news over the past days has been of governments like France and the United States preparing to do just that; our own government had announced it might also do so, subject to Chinese approval.A big part of the coronavirus story is how China’s government has handled things. Activist Yaxue Cao revealed that a Wuhan doctor in late December had said in a WeChat group that there were seven SARS cases connected to a seafood market in Wuhan. The result was a scolding by the Communist Party’s disciplinary committee; the doctor was made to sign a statement at the police saying he was wrong. Cao claimed that Wuhan health authorities had overnight meetings in late December on what they believed to be a new SARS. Yesterday, she said the mayor of Wuhan had said he wasn’t authorized to publicize the epidemic until Jan. 20.

Much has been written, in a less speculative vein, of the original errors of the Chinese government. The impression that local officials were originally inclined to downplay the outbreak, and the slowness in getting information from the ground to the top, and for the top, in turn, to decide on what to do and send decisions and orders on down, has dogged Chinese official actions every step of the way. But scientists, for their part, have praised the Chinese authorities for being forthcoming with data and samples to the scientific community, so laboratories around the world can begin decoding the virus and figuring out how it works, and also come up with a vaccine.

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When the top decided to act, it did so with resolve: tens of millions have effectively been quarantined, holidays were extended to spread out the congestion from the Spring Festival migrations, and so on. But as the report from Beijing indicates, China is equally firm in demonstrating it is in full control of the situation, and intends to hold other governments at bay (which also prevents too many eyes-on-the-ground reports from foreign agents).

On the same day these tweets were sent out, domestic news had the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) holding a conference with experts to plan what to do about the outbreak overseas. This was a surprising slowness on the part of our DFA, although as one Filipino reporter in China mentioned, by all accounts our Beijing embassy has been efficient and proactive in reaching out to Filipinos in China. As it turns out, when it comes to China, our government, like all other governments, will be limited by China’s refusal (couched as reassurances) to consider the evacuation of foreigners.

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But what has been most obvious has been the wide gulf between our government’s attitude to the coronavirus goings-on in China and domestic public opinion about the outbreak, which revealed how our inherent racism is not only present, but easily activated. Chinese media played up the delivery of over a million face masks to Wuhan from the Philippines, sourced locally here. The peanut gallery immediately erupted with complaints about the scarcity of masks in the aftermath of the Taal eruption, and it surprised me that no one in our own media picked up on what one Hong Kong resident was actively tweeting over recent days: that there’s a shortage of masks in Hong Kong, which that resident attributed to a buying spree by Filipinos there to send to relatives and friends here at home.

That being said, the point is the outrageous and shameful racism of so many of our countrymen. There is one thing to be said of our authorities, regardless of who’s on top, which is, for all the weakness and susceptibility of our institutions to political intramurals, they do retain a kind of institutional memory of things and do have plans to cope with emergencies. We are also innately great improvisers after (usually) an initial, creaky start. As of this writing, the Department of Health (DOH) said there are roughly 27 individuals all over the country (if you look at the reports, they roughly correlate with where tourism arrivals are most numerous) being monitored and tested for the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). While initially slow on the uptake, the DOH has managed to ramp up its information bulletins and appeals to the public—something it has to do, considering the epidemic of false information and rumors that has already swept the country ahead of even one single confirmed 2019-nCoV case.

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TAGS: China, Department of Foreign Affairs, John Sudworth, social media
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