China Created a Fail-Safe System to Track Contagions. It Failed.

After SARS, Chinese health officials built an infectious disease reporting system to evade political meddling. But when the coronavirus emerged, so did fears of upsetting Beijing.

The New York Times
Date: March 29, 2020
By: Steven Lee Myers

Medical staff checking on a coronavirus patient at the Red Cross hospital in Wuhan, China, in early March.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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The alarm system was ready. Scarred by the SARS epidemic that erupted in 2002, China had created an infectious disease reporting system that officials said was world-class: fast, thorough and, just as important, immune from meddling.

Hospitals could input patients’ details into a computer and instantly notify government health authorities in Beijing, where officers are trained to spot and smother contagious outbreaks before they spread.

It didn’t work.

After doctors in Wuhan began treating clusters of patients stricken with a mysterious pneumonia in December, the reporting was supposed to have been automatic. Instead, hospitals deferred to local health officials who, over a political aversion to sharing bad news, withheld information about cases from the national reporting system — keeping Beijing in the dark and delaying the response.

The central health authorities first learned about the outbreak not from the reporting system but after unknown whistle-blowers leaked two internal documents online.

Even after Beijing got involved, local officials set narrow criteria for confirming cases, leaving out information that could have provided clues that the virus was spreading among humans.

Hospitals were ordered to count only patients with a known connection to the source of the outbreak, the seafood market. Doctors also had to have their cases confirmed by bureaucrats before they were reported to higher-ups.    [FULL  STORY]

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