February 7 coronavirus news
Public anger in China is rising over hospitals struggling to find enough supplies, despite the Red Cross -- and other organizations -- having received millions of dollars in donations.
The Red Cross is the country's biggest charity -- but, unlike in most other countries, the Red Cross in China is government-controlled and receives most of its funding from the state.
"The Red Cross in China is not just the Red Cross -- it's a quasi-government organization," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
Supply shortage: On February 1, a government official said that the public had donated more than $86 million, and medical supplies to the Wuhan Red Cross, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper.
Despite the donations, doctors and hospital workers describe a desperate situation.
One doctor in Huanggang, Hubei province, told CNN that his hospital has no usable hazmat suits, face masks or shoe covers. And in a video shared by the state-run tabloid Global Times last weekend, a doctor says he waited for over an hour at a Red Cross distribution center, just to get a box of 500 masks.
Official response: In response to anger and accusations, the Hubei Red Cross apologized for its failures and punished three officials for "mishandling donations for the coronavirus."
The Wuhan government dismissed one government official, and warned another two over taking masks from a Red Cross warehouse.
But this isn't the first time China's Red Cross has come under fire during a national crisis, and this time it could be damning -- not only for the organization but also for the government.
Shelves are empty in some Hong Kong supermarkets. Toilet rolls, tissue paper, bleach, and even soap have sold out. Videos on social media show crowds packed inside supermarkets, rushing to snatch remaining supplies.
The panic buying began earlier this week and has continued through today, sparked by rumors online that mainland China would stop exporting these goods -- specifically toilet paper -- to Hong Kong, as more borders between the two places close.
The Hong Kong government has denied the rumors and appealed for calm. Emergency measures, including closing several borders, "will not affect the freight services between the Mainland and Hong Kong," the government said in a statement.
"Besides, the Government has confirmed with the major suppliers that the supply of food products remains normal and there is no shortage of food. There are sufficient stocks of staple food including rice and pastas. There is no need for the public to worry."
But the warnings don't seem to have had much effect -- one supermarket's online shopping site is so swamped that users have to join an online queue, with a wait stretching for more than an hour.
As the coronavirus outbreak continues spreading across Asia and the rest of the world, grief and anger are cutting through the noise, after the death of Chinese whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang.
Meanwhile, thousands remain quarantined offshore, and the outbreak is spiking in some countries.
Here's what has happened today:
- Whistleblower doctor dies: Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who was targeted by police for trying to sound the alarm in December, died of the coronavirus late last night. Chinese social media has exploded into near-unprecedented levels of grief and fury against the government, with calls for accountability and freedom of speech -- rarely seen in China's tightly-controlled online sphere.
- Cruise ship quarantine: More than 7,300 people are quarantined on two cruise ships off Hong Kong and Japan after former passengers were confirmed to have the virus. Today, authorities confirmed that 61 passengers were infected on the ship in Japan, while all test results for crew members on the Hong Kong ship have so far come back negative.
- Spike in cases: Several Asian countries have seen worrying spikes in cases in recent days, sparking fears of self-sustaining outbreak clusters. Japan has 86 cases, including the cases on the cruise ship, the highest number in a country outside China; Singapore has 30; Thailand has 25; and South Korea and Hong Kong have 24 each.
Thousands of medical workers in Hong Kong have been on strike for five days, demanding the government close all borders with mainland China and take further emergency measures against the virus.
Now, they are voting on whether to continue the strike -- an issue that has become bitter and divisive in the city, where political hostilities have yet to cool after months of ongoing unrest that began in June last year.
The vote: The strikers are largely members of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), a medical workers' union. The union said earlier today that it will hold a vote on whether to extend or end the strike, and continue striking if more than 6,000 members vote in favor of it. The vote is now underway.
The strike, and the controversy: Yesterday, more than 6,400 union members went on strike, said the HAEA -- about 17% of the total nursing staff in the Hospital Authority.
The strike has been criticized by the Hospital Authority, the city's Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and some members of the public who accuse the strikers of neglecting their duty to patients.
For most of the week, public hospitals have had limited services due to the strike. Remaining staff members have had to focus efforts on emergency services, so patients with mild conditions were advised to find private hospitals or clinics instead.
Meanwhile, Lam has implemented emergency measures such as mandatory quarantines for travelers coming from China, and closed all but three of Hong Kong's mainland China border crossings.
For the past 12 hours, Chinese social media has been flooded with tributes to the whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, who died of the coronavirus last night.
There has also been a swell of almost unprecedented public anger against the government, and the country's censorship apparatus.
On Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, the hashtag "I want freedom of speech," drew more than 1.8 million views in the early hours of Friday morning, before it was censored.
Why this matters: This level of overwhelming, near-universal public fury has not been seen since the Wenzhou train crash in 2011, when authorities rushed to cover up the causes of a high-speed rail collision, even abandoning the search for survivors while many were still alive.
That incident became a lightning rod for frustrations about poor safety standards in China and the uncaring attitudes of the authorities, just as it appears Li's death will be a conduit for anger over a host of issues beyond the virus.
Read the full analysis here.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said the prevention and control of Wuhan coronavirus is at “a critical stage” during a telephone call with President Donald Trump today, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.
The two leaders spoke about efforts to contain the virus and Xi expressed confidence in defeating the epidemic, the ministry said in a statement.
Xi said he was hopeful that the US could “assess the epidemic situation in a calm manner” and “adjust response measures in a reasonable way,” the statement said.
The Chinese foreign ministry lashed out at the US earlier this week, accusing it of overreacting and feeding mass hysteria without providing assistance in the fight against the coronavirus in China.
Shortly afterward, the US sent supplies to China, authorities from both countries confirmed.
The director of Amnesty International criticized the death of Li Wenliang, the Chinese whistleblower doctor, as an indication of "human rights failings" in the coronavirus outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China.
“The case of Li Wenliang is a tragic reminder of how the Chinese authorities’ preoccupation with maintaining ‘stability’ drives it to suppress vital information about matters of public interest," said regional director Nicholas Bequelin.
“China must learn the lesson from Li’s case and adopt a rights-respecting approach to combating the epidemic. Nobody should face harassment or sanctions for speaking out about public dangers, just because it may cause embarrassment to the government.”
In late December, Chinese doctor Li Wenliang was targeted by police after trying to blow the whistle on the coronavirus outbreak. By late January, top medical officials were hailing him and other whistleblowers as authorities scrambled to contain the outbreak.
If Li's initial arrest was an embarrassment for the authorities, his death is a disaster that has sparked a censorship crisis.
Censors at a loss: As news of Li's death spread, Chinese social media was flooded with grief, rage, and calls for government accountability.
Those in charge of China's vast censorship apparatus, the Great Firewall, seemed at a loss over what to do. Forbidden topics relating to censorship and freedom of speech trended for several hours before being deleted -- rare evidence of indecision and confusion.
How he "died twice": In an apparent clumsy attempt to control the narrative, multiple state media outlets reported Li's death -- then deleted the reports. The hospital claimed Li was still being resuscitated, then confirmed later that he had died.
While it is possible that this was a mistake, the suggestion that censors' hands were involved was enough to spark fury online.
"A doctor had to die twice," wrote one user on the popular social media app WeChat. "That is national humiliation."
Australia will use a mining camp to quarantine patients suspected of having the Wuhan coronavirus, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said today.
The mining camp is located in Darwin, the capital of Australia's Northern Territory.
There is already a campsite on Christmas Island -- known for its notorious offshore immigration detention center -- being used to isolate suspected coronavirus patients. But the site there “does not suit the purposes” due to an “inability to properly segregate the people in the facility," said Morrison.
He added the government is currently consulting the local community in the Northern Territory on using the contingent campsite.