Since January, the Covid-19 outbreak has triggered a major public health crisis, infecting more than 77,041 and killing at least 2,445 in China as of February 22. The figures include those in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. While China is still trying its best to contain the spread of the virus, authorities need to reflect on problems in the governance system that surfaced during the outbreak.
The Chinese government must realize that its doctrine to prioritize social and political stability over all else may backfire in areas like public health. We now know that authorities were informed of the emerging novel coronavirus as early as late December 2019, when frontline scientists and medical professionals found that the virus was highly contagious.
Not only had authorities missed the short window to contain its spread in the first weeks of 2020, they repeatedly assured the public there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission and that the virus was under control. By the time the outbreak epicenter Wuhan was locked down on January 23, it was too late.
It is still unclear what exactly happened in the early part of January. Authorities may have underestimated the danger posed by the novel coronavirus. Perhaps they were concerned that a genuine assessment of the situation might cause public panic and jeopardize economic and social stability. In any case, the authorities failure to take swift action and promptly inform the public was a major reason behind the spread, which has incurred huge economic, social and human costs.
The government should learn from these lessons and rethink its approach to transparency. It must realize that transparency is not a threat to social stability. On the contrary, it can enhance social stability by boosting people's trust and confidence in the government. The more transparent the government, the more people can trust and support it. But the more the government is afraid to tell the truth, the more the people are suspicious of it, which could cause a long-term risk to social stability.
The coronavirus outbreak also showed that expert opinions did not receive adequate attention in the decision-making process. We now know that China's scientists and medical professionals did act swiftly to address the health crisis. Chinese researchers released the genetic sequence of the virus as early as January 2. In the meantime, frontline doctors warned authorities and the public of the dangers the virus posed, only to be ordered not to speak publicly on the issue.
China's economic success in past decades has long been credited to a pragmatic and technocratic framework focusing on solving empirical problems rather than on ideological arguments. In the past couple of years, scientific and technological innovation was promoted as the new path of China's economic development. But during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, the voices of scientists and frontline experts appeared to be either discarded or ignored, with catastrophic consequences. It is imperative that China restores the role of science and technocrats in its governance system to prevent similar disasters in the future.
As all of China's society has been mobilized to fight the coronavirus, many government-run charities have faced criticism for failing to distribute donated supplies effectively. Given the scale of the health crisis, many government-run charities appear overwhelmed by an apparent lack of grass-roots networks.
In past years, authorities have discouraged, if not forbidden, the development of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This government monopoly on philanthropy has created a social vacuum that hinders effective response to health crises like the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Fortunately, many grass-roots volunteer groups have mobilized for relief efforts. The government should review its policy on NGOs.
In a politburo meeting held on February 3, authorities said that the outbreak posed a challenge to China’s governance capabilities. Indeed, the outbreak has laid bare the major problems in the country’s health crisis response system, as well as social establishment, public communication and scientific literacy of the bureaucratic system. In the aftermath of the crisis, China should learn from these lessons to build a more scientific and robust governance system.