Covering up: Covid-19 and the face, by Elizabeth Gasson, 10th April 2020
Having spent seven years in China, our SACU member, Elizabeth left China with her soon-to-be fiancé, and headed to the UK to take a research degree and convert her career area into Psychology (so as to better support her students). She is now residing in Sydney where her now-husband is working towards the opening of a Chinese bank branch there and she is pursuing her PhD in Cognitive Science (focused on Chinese reading difficulties) while expanding her online Education Centre for Chinese individuals around the world. Here she discusses her recent concern relating to COVID-19, based on her conversations with Chinese, British and Australian communities, and the international news.
Various sources have criticised The People’s Republic of China, PRC, for its tardy disclosure of the Covid-19 virus. However, even after letting the virus duplicate its DNA like wildfire, The PRC managed to contain the virus so radically when the deadly picture had been painted. Following this, they warned international media of the deadliness this disease presented and provided regular updates. However, even as this is being written, China is being accused of “fake statistics” as they start loosening the restrictions placed for months on millions of peoples’ lives.
Internationally, when the row was getting too tough to hoe for international leaders, some of them were barely pulling in the reins on social contact as they larked about rubbing their nostrils with one hand and shaking patients’ hands with the other, all on national TV. Meanwhile, Chinese leaders were locking down cities, only allowing those with permits to leave their building, and even then, they must be masked up.
A student of mine from a small city in Zhejiang province shared his account of Covid-19 each week. He spoke of lights turning on and off in different rooms at the hotel-turned quarantine centre that he could see from his apartment window. As he described his experience, I imagined how he was watching a slow-motion newsreel about tragedy and hope, waiting for the next stage. The future looked bleak but life would go on.
Internationally, a large number of countries have already surpassed China’s stage of the epidemic yet there is still relative freedom to stretch the legs and roam around unmasked. Reports of sunbathers lapping up the sun and picnics in the park can still be found in British local community groups on Facebook, even after The British Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s denouncement of such acts.
The different approaches in containing the virus can be reflected in the international statistics. In the USA, the death toll currently sits at 1014 (Coronavirus Update (Live), Worldometer, 10/04/2020), in a country of 0.33 billion, between a quarter and a fifth of China’s 1.45 billion people. Yet in the densely populated cities and towns of China, the virus has been contained at 3335 fatalities. Covid-19 was halted in its steps in a country with the largest population in the world. Nonetheless, comments claiming that China is “covering up” are still being voiced in the media. On April 2nd, Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, told Bloomberg News, “The claim that the United States has more coronavirus deaths than China is false” (‘China Concealed Extent of Virus Outbreak, U.S. Intelligence Says’, 2020). China has taken the brunt time and again for its “coverups”.
It is a matter of perspective one might say, for misinformation has a number of facades. The PRC has been criticised over censoring the initial outbreak in Wuhan, but did they understand the severity of it, or even what it was in December of 2019? Was their handling then more improper than the broadcasting recently of distracting or even dishonest information abroad?
In China, while trying to decipher the convoluted nature of a new strain of disease, there was less information released than the world would have liked. But when the studies had started rolling out and the ugly face of Covid-19 was unveiled, the reporting and effectiveness of governance exceeded all expectations and set international precedents. In a country of nearly 1.45 billion people, 18.5 percent of the global population, fatal cases have been limited to 3.7 percent of the total international death toll (calculated from population and Covid-19 statistics taken from Worldometer on 10th April, 2020). Looking west, the information was already out for them to learn from. But were the Chinese methods followed?
Of crucial importance, far from enforcement, there were no recommendations to mask up in the UK or the USA, as was the recommendation in China.
My discussions with friends in the UK have received two main answers to my question “Do you have face masks?”. The first group of people would respond by saying they had but were perhaps anxious about wearing a mask outside due to fear of what others would think, say, or possibly do.
The second group responded saying they didn’t have any face masks because they were ineffective in protecting against the disease, including one lady who ran a childcare centre. It may seem obvious that the first group were people of East-Asian heritage or with East-Asian friendships. The second group were British and Australian (with no influence from Asia).
The issue appeared to be a difference in the levels of clarity provided by official health recommendations. An interesting example can be drawn from guidelines provided by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC. Until this week, the CDC have continued to advocate that face masks are not useful for healthy individuals. In their guidance on “How to Protect Yourself” (CDC, 2020) they explained “If you are NOT sick: You do not need to wear a facemask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a face mask).”
However. two months before these guidelines were finally being “reconsidered”, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases said, “There’s no doubt after reading this paper that asymptomatic transmission is occurring.” (CNN, 2020).
Ironically, a 2009 study was previously published by CDC (the very same official organisation that claimed face masks did not need to be worn) outlining that face masks were useful to protect against influenza (MacIntyre et al., 2009).
If proper guidelines and legislature were provided, if we listened to and learned from our Chinese friends who had the real stories to tell of Covid-19, could this have saved many from contracting the virus in the first place?
The April 2nd Bloomberg article accusing China of misrepresenting the numbers also complains about China’s “coverup” in late 2019. The question is, did China’s alleged “coverup” last longer than America’s delay in Covid-19 preventative measures? The US had weeks to prepare before their first fatal case at the end of February. We are now four months in and still, there is still a lack of clarity about universal face-mask usage.
As the public are still in a state of confusion about whether to cover up their faces or not, the Covid-19 coverup blame still spreads across the frontpage news.
China Concealed Extent of Virus Outbreak, U.S. Intelligence Says. (2020, April 1). Bloomberg.Com. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-01/china-concealed-extent-of-virus-outbreak-u-s-intelligence-says
CNN, E. C. and J. B. (n.d.). ‘There’s no doubt’: Top US infectious disease doctor says Wuhan coronavirus can spread even when people have no symptoms. CNN. Retrieved 6 April 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/31/health/coronavirus-asymptomatic-spread-study/index.html
Coronavirus Update (Live): 1,318,229 Cases and 72,766 Deaths from COVID-19 Virus Outbreak—Worldometer. (n.d.). Retrieved 7 April 2020, from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
How to Protect Yourself | CDC. (2020, March 31). https://web.archive.org/web/20200331143006/https:/www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html
MacIntyre, C. R., Cauchemez, S., Dwyer, D. E., Seale, H., Cheung, P., Browne, G., Fasher, M., Wood, J., Gao, Z., Booy, R., & Ferguson, N. (2009). Face Mask Use and Control of Respiratory Virus Transmission in Households. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 15(2), 233–241. https://doi.org/10.3201/eid1502.081167