PARIS — It was on January 8, after days of reading news about an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, that I sent a message to a friend, in case she hadn't been following the news. She comes from that city in mainland China, but lives in Hong Kong. I warned her sternly not to travel back to Wuhan for the upcoming Chinese New Year, which was scheduled to begin two weeks later.
As a Taiwanese, even one who has lived abroad for years, my instinct is to distrust the Chinese regime. This time, their longstanding policy of arresting "rumor spreaders" included Li Wenliang, the physician who first tried to alert his colleagues and the world of the novel strain of coronavirus. He would wind up dying from the virus two months later.
My suspicions toward Beijing was coupled with my memory of Taiwan's tragic experience during the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a viral pandemic that occurred between 2002 and 2003. SARS killed 73 people in Taiwan, due in large part to China's opacity and delay in informing the world.
This time, my native country would not be caught off-guard. By December 31, Taiwan's National Health Command Center — agency set up in the wake of SARS — was already mobilized. All flights from Wuhan were systematically inspected, and Taiwan immediately issued an alert to the World Health Organization (WHO), warning of the probable spread between humans. Chen Chien-jen, Taiwan's vice-president and an epidemiologist by training, told the Financial Times that the WHO ignored the warnings.
On Jan. 11, my husband and I traveled from our home in France to Taiwan, to spend the lunar New Year holiday with my parents as I do every year. By this time, China has finally identified the epidemic as a "new coronavirus" and admitted to the infection of numerous medical staff in Wuhan's hospital, though carefully avoiding to confirm that there had already been clear evidence of human-to-human infection.
The epidemic spread, silently but quickly, all over China — and to neighboring countries including Thailand, Singapore and Japan.
A week after arriving in Taiwan, we paid a visit to my sister-in-law who'd been hospitalized after a serious road accident. My nephew, who is a cardiologist working in the same hospital where his mother was being treated, explained that Taiwan had already mobilized its medical system, even though it had registered zero confirmed cases at that time.
The death count should be viewed very skeptically.
When the Chinese authorities realized finally that the disease risked a dramatic propagation because of the millions of trips home by people for the New Year, it was finally forced, on January 20, to admit that the coronavirus "may pass person to person."
Three days later, Wuhan was finally placed in lockdown, followed by identical measures in many towns in the central Hubei province, then other provinces. Alas, it was all too late.
Meanwhile, Tedros Adhanom, the WHO's Director-General visited Chairman Xi Jinping on January 28th, praising him for his "outstanding leadership" and "China's impressive speed, transparency and efficiency" in fighting the disease.
The official death count in Wuhan (circa 2,500) and elsewhere in China should be viewed very skeptically. My friend from Wuhan told me that after one of her family friends had died from coronavirus, the funeral parlor staff had told the family that due to the massive numbers of corpses to be dealt with, many bodies were in fact being incinerated together at the same time. The family ended up bribing the crematorium to have the corpse secretly kept in cold storage until the situation would allow it to be cremated individually.
A Taiwan High-Speed Rail staff monitoring body temperatures of a young child among coronavirus fears. — Photo: Walid Berrazeg
At the end of January, my husband wrote on the Facebook page of the French town where we live, Palaiseau, trying to warn that this epidemic may well soon reach everywhere in the world. His alert was dismissed by many, with one person chiding him as "causing meaningless panic." Another responded sarcastically: "We do not speak Chinese in Palaiseau."
I returned home on February 1 under a heavy cloud, as if the disease was following me back westward. I had no doubt that the arrival of trouble was but a question of time.
But what worried me even more was the carefree attitude of the French people, or really, the whole of the West. In a country where the word globalization is constantly used, people somehow suddenly forgot how easily disease can be globalized.
Up to just three days before a nationwide shutdown began in France, commentators on TV kept calling the fear of the virus a "psychosis." How did the Western world allow itself to fall so far? The fact is that since early March, so many countries of the world have realized, one by one, that their response to the virus was too little, too late. Did they not believe the medical experts? Did they trust the regime in Beijing too much?
A recent article published by the Initium, a Hong Kong based online news outlet, pointed out that for a regime that wouldn't even admit how many people, and particularly how many schoolchildren, died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, we should never expect to know how many COVID-19 victims there really are.
Taiwan, just across the strait from China, knew this well enough to prepare right away. Here in France, 10,000 kilometers away, people are learning it the hard way.
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