A woman wearing a protective face mask, amid concerns over the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, covers her head from the sun in Singapore on February 14, 2020. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in January, the Chinese government was criticized for muzzling whistleblowers and delaying reporting on the novel coronavirus that soon began spreading around the world. Even as health experts praised Beijing for subsequent quarantine and treatment efforts, they noted that China could have done better in terms of transparency and accuracy of reporting on the severity of the epidemic during its initial outbreak.

With the epidemic raging on, those concerns about transparency and accuracy have re-emerged. Even as China reports a dramatic fall in the number of new cases and recovery of infected victims, global media are warning of the potential for recovered patients being re-infected and regressing into life-threatening conditions.

The point of asking who has “really” recovered from Covid-19 is driven home by the case of a supposedly healthy man who died five days after being discharged from the hospital.

As the epidemic takes an economic toll, the incentive for being optimistic with reports on recoveries from Covid-19 grows. Part of the reason that China has been quick to spread the news that the number of new cases has dramatically declined is the need to jumpstart an economy that has stumbled because of the epidemic.

While foreign outlets speculated on the possibility of the Chinese recession, Beijing continued to stand by its economic target of 6% GDP growth for the year. Achieving that target with a first quarter ravaged by the Covid-19 outbreak will require businesses to be assured that they can reopen and consumers can go out and spend again, without fears of further infections. The Chinese efforts to reopen factories, then, can be seen as an attempt to minimize further economic damage, both to China and its trading partners, through reviving global supply chains.

Yet as the coronavirus spreads globally, efforts by China alone can no longer contain economic damage on a global scale. With stock markets crashing around the world and Europe falling into recession, the incentive to play down the severity of the epidemic will no longer be a preserve of the Chinese government.

More and more countries will realize that just cutting interest rates and coaxing banks to delay repayments on loans are no longer enough to save the economy. Instead, they need to persuade producers to resume producing and consumers to resume consuming by playing down the threat Covid-19 poses to their businesses and very lives. 

In many cases, the efforts of other countries to maintain optimism in the face of Covid-19 are looking worryingly similar to China’s hampering the sharing of often productive information. The UK and Singapore, for instance, have put into action agencies and laws that seek to suppress supposed disinformation, while citizens have been arrested or fined in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam for spreading rumors about the epidemic. All these instances are reminiscent of China’s efforts to censor and punish citizens for spreading information about the coronavirus. 

Given that governments across the world, democracies and autocracies alike, are legitimized by the ability to maintain economic growth and social stability in the face of a global crisis like the Covid-19 epidemic, their instinct to encourage optimism at home is understandable. However, with millions of lives at stake from a virus of particular virulence, it it highly questionable whether it is a good idea to play down the threat of mass infections just to keep the socioeconomic fabric visibly in order for the short term.

Instead, it may be worth exploring the option of governments erring on the side of caution, pooling and pouring resources into a single focused effort for containment of the coronavirus and treatment of Covid-19, the disease it causes, rather than being distracted by preventing people, in the name of saving the economy, from doing what they can to protect their own health.

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Xiaochen Su

Xiaochen Su is a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo specializing in immigration issues. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea and Southeast Asia.