Confronting an outbreak requires more than just an ability to throw up hospitals in a few days; it necessitates trust. And from the beginning, China’s public response to the virus has raised questions. Even multinational institutions like WHO are feeling this as the coronavirus worsens. The organization was unable to rule on the severity of 2019-nCoV following its first meeting on Jan. 22, apparently because of resistance from Beijing. (WHO referred to “divergent views.”) Notably, despite WHO’s insisting that travel bans to China would not be necessary, a dozen nations introduced stringent restrictions, including the U.S., Australia and North Korea. If you believe China’s official figures, 2019-nCoV has a fatality rate of just 2%–about the same as regular influenza and a far cry from the 50% of Ebola or the 10% of SARS. Why then, observers might well ask, has China placed entire cities in lockdown, quarantined tens of millions and mobilized troops?
Here is the downside of Xi’s system of top-down control; nobody acted until they got word from the top, and then everyone wildly overreacted in order to satisfy the leader. This was evident in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, where the outbreak began, and the official response lurched from cover-up to overreaction only after Xi addressed the crisis. “The full CCP apparatus didn’t kick into gear to address the coronavirus until Xi had weighed in on the matter,” says Blanchette. Notably, the President himself has kept a low profile since the outbreak began and was not seen in public for eight days after the Lunar New Year.
Now, throughout China, fear is mixing with inchoate rage. In Hubei province, people from Wuhan are ostracized. But in other provinces, people from anywhere in Hubei are shunned. Videos circulating on social media show vigilantes tooling up to protect their villages. In one video, a man in a dark jacket and wide-brimmed hat guards a bridge with a pistol. In another, a man in an orange puffer jacket sits on a table at the entrance to his village, brandishing an enormous sword. All have signs nearby with a common theme: outsiders cannot pass.