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Laurie Garrett: World Can’t Let Racist Attitudes Impact Handling of Coronavirus Outbreak

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The Chinese doctor who warned the government about a possible coronavirus outbreak has died after contracting the virus while working at Wuhan Central Hospital. Thirty-four-year-old ophthalmologist Li Wenliang warned his fellow medical workers about coronavirus on December 30. He was then investigated by police and accused of “making false comments.” His death has sparked a wave of anger and outrage in China, where the hashtag “We want freedom of speech” went viral on Chinese social media site Weibo this week. The death toll from the coronavirus has now topped 630 people in China, with more than 31,000 confirmed cases worldwide. The central Chinese government has ordered officials in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, to round up and quarantine all infected residents. Residents are being ordered to report family members who show symptoms of the virus to authorities. Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Laurie Garrett says, “China is doing things that really no other nation on Earth could do” to contain the spread of the virus, including quarantining tens of millions of people. We spoke with Garrett just days before the whistleblower doctor died.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. The Chinese doctor who warned the Chinese government about a possible coronavirus outbreak has died after contracting the virus while working at Wuhan Central Hospital. He was a 34-year-old ophthalmologist. His name, Dr. Li Wenliang. Warned his fellow medical workers about coronavirus December 30th. He was then investigated by police, accused of, quote, “making false comments.” His death has sparked a wave of anger and outrage in China, where the hashtag “We want freedom of speech” went viral on Chinese social media Thursday.

The death toll from the coronavirus has now topped 630 people in China, with 31,000 confirmed cases of infection worldwide. The central Chinese government has ordered officials in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, to round up and quarantine all infected residents. Residents are being ordered to report family members who show symptoms of the virus to authorities. Meanwhile, at least 61 people have now tested positive for coronavirus on a cruise ship that’s quarantined off the coast of Japan. At least eight of those diagnosed with the virus are Americans. The ship has thousands of people on board, including 428 Americans. All passengers are being forced to stay in their rooms.

We turn now to Part 2 of our conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Laurie Garrett, author of several books, including Ebola: Story of an Outbreak and The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, as well as Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health. I spoke to her on Monday, days before the whistleblower doctor died. She talked about him, as well as her reporting from China during the SARS outbreak 17 years ago. I asked her about what’s happening now.

LAURIE GARRETT: You know, this is really hard, Amy, because China is doing things that really no other nation on Earth could do. It’s a combination of an authoritarian government and, you know, tremendous infrastructure. They built a thousand-bed hospital in Wuhan in eight days. It’s admitting patients today. I witnessed them building hospitals in the provincial areas in six days, seven days. And I’m not talking about a slapdash little shed. It’s a real, sophisticated, you know, negative air pressure hospital. But the measures they’re having to resort to are so extreme. You know, basically, 100 million people in the nation right at this moment are in some form of shutdown or lockdown. They have to move hundreds of billions of pounds of food all over the country in mass convoys to the locked-down population. I mean, Wuhan is 11 million people. And Beijing is essentially under a de facto quarantine.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how it is. I mean, we’ve seen movies with plagues. But how — actually what does it look like? You can’t drive outside. You’re met by men with guns?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, they don’t point guns at you.

AMY GOODMAN: They cut down the public transportation system.

LAURIE GARRETT: But yeah, you can’t go through usual train stations, airports, any of that. In some places, those are completely shut down. In others, you will have to go through a whole set of fever checks and questions and so on, by people in the spacesuits, the PPEs, to determine whether or not it’s safe for you to move on. Are you a potential disease carrier? And if you are driving, you’ll be stopped every roughly 10 miles, and you’ll have to get out of your vehicle. Your vehicle will be disinfected with sprays. And you will have to go through yet another fever check. So, it wasn’t uncommon during SARS, and I’m hearing the same thing from colleagues there now, to have myself go through a dozen to 20 fever checks a day. Just almost every building would require it, whatever you were doing.

And the scale of this, I just can’t underscore enough. There’s no other nation on Earth that could do this right now. We certainly couldn’t. Nor would we. Can you imagine how many days it would take just to get approval for a piece of land to build a hospital on in the United States? Here in New York City, we’d be bickering on it, you know, two years from now. To build a high-end hospital in eight days, there’s no other country. Forget it. We should be watching what they’re having to go through, and thinking, “Well, what will we do if it comes here? Where’s our resources?” You know, it’s a harder thing to fight an epidemic in a democracy. It’s a harder thing to fight when the internet can just scream all kinds of lies, whereas they’ve been locking people up in China for going on Weibo and telling the truth. And they’re still locking people up.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what that truth is.

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, for example, there’s a young doctor who’s an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who was one of the first to spot that there was a new kind of pneumonia afoot. And he thought it looked a lot like SARS. He went on social media, on Weibo. He put out his analysis of it, and they immediately arrested him, and he was thrown in prison. He was recently released from prison. He went back to treat patients. And he’s come down with the coronavirus and is now fighting for his life.

Anybody who’s giving information — for example, some of you may, if you’re following this, you’ve seen these horrible pictures of people who’ve died and are — their body is just sitting on the sidewalk. They’re in a hallway. They’ve careened with their car, died trying to get to a hospital and smashed into a tree, and they’re just sitting there in the car. And no one comes because they’re afraid to touch these bodies. If you social media, tweet those images in the United States, that’s OK. But in China, that could get you in prison, it it’s tracked that you’re the one that’s been posting those images. So, what’s happening now is that there’s almost a lockdown of information, on top of everything else.

So, let me just say what is the appropriate way that Americans should be looking at this right now, because we’re at that danger moment in the United States between sort of being disease voyeurs, watching what’s unfolding overseas, with some strange interest, versus going into panic because we think it’s coming to us. And we’re in an election year. We’re in — with a government that has pared back its own ability to respond, and with a public that is very panic prone and addicted to looking at their telephones. You put all this together, we have a recipe for a possible really severe overreaction, that would include, you know, clamping down on Chinese-descendant people inside the United States, that could include all sorts of measures that would be hideous. And meanwhile, just the fear of something that’s actually thousands of miles away has made us run out of masks. And I challenge your viewers to go out and find a face mask right now, an appropriate one, an actual medical, not a dust mask, not a construction mask, but one that’s actually designed to block viruses.

AMY GOODMAN: What are they called, the ones that are designed to block viruses?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, it won’t help to tell you, because now on social media everybody’s advertising, quote, N95 masks, and they’re just dust masks. So, it’s doesn’t matter what — everybody’s lying. People are making huge profits. There’s hoarding of masks all over the world. The fact is, almost all the face masks that work — they’re medical face masks — are not made in the United States. They may be distributed by a U.S. company, but they’re made in? Fill in the blank. China and the Philippines, for the most part. And we go down the list of things, and we can see there’s already panic buying. You’re hard-pressed to find medically designed latex gloves right now in drugstores anywhere in the United States. Amazon’s out of masks. So, if you hit the point where Amazon.com can’t fill it, well, then, you know, you’re in real trouble.

AMY GOODMAN: How does the coronavirus relate to the flu? And that goes to the flu vaccine and what’s happening. I mean, I think there is a push to develop a coronavirus vaccine, right?

LAURIE GARRETT: Yeah, but we won’t have one anytime soon.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how does the flu and the toll it’s taking, let’s say just in the United States, and then around the world, compare?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, certainly the numbers of people who every year get the flu dwarfs anything — any epidemic. So, you could use that, and people always do, as a red herring to say, “So why are we so worried about this other epidemic? it’s trivial compared to the flu, blah, blah, blah.”

Well, there’s two big things to think about with flu right now. One is, yeah, why do we keep having this high death rate from flu? I mean, that’s an indication that the American people are not listening to public health. They’re not getting vaccinated. They’re not taking precautions, and they sort of have a lackadaisical attitude towards it until they get really sick. So, that shows the level of the struggle for the public health system.

But also, you don’t want to get the flu right now and have it be mistaken for coronavirus. And since both have respiratory symptoms and high fever, that would be a problem. So this is all the more reason you should get vaccinated and reduce your chances of getting the flu and being misdiagnosed or having your real coronavirus missed because they thought it was the flu.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that China is now making up for lost time? What would you say are China’s biggest mistakes they’ve made so far? And what about what they’re doing now?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, they covered up. I mean, this is typical, what I’ve seen every time in China, every outbreak I’ve been in there, is that — you know, outsiders don’t understand. China really has two governments that run in parallel. One is the official government, with people with titles, you know, minister of whatever. And the other is the party, the Communist Party. And one trumps the other, and that’s the Communist Party. And it’s essentially kind of a shadow government, in the sense that not everybody knows who the party official is in charge of X, Y or Z. But the mode of the party is to always strive for stability. And that’s the most common word in the Chinese political lexicon, you know, “stability,” “stability.” So nothing can rock the boat. Nothing can upset the order of society.

Well, what’s upsetting to order of society more than an epidemic? And so the initial response of party officials whenever there’s an outbreak is to stifle it as quickly as possible and stifle all news and information about it and spend as much time arresting, as I wrote about several weeks ago when this was first starting, that they were spending more energy arresting people for talking about this epidemic — almost all of them healthcare workers, by the way — than they were in dealing with it and confronting it. So, by the time they actually put out honest numbers and actually start telling the world the true toll, we’re several weeks in, and we have a huge problem on our hands. And then, now they’re just racing to keep up. The Hong Kong University has a spectacular team of epidemiology statisticians, who’ve been through SARS, been through bird flu, on and on down there, and they’ve been analyzing the numbers of cases and reports through a variety of means. And they’ve shown the underreporting rate is pretty consistently by more than 50% — in fact, considerably more — so that they say this currently reported toll total of about 17,000-and-change cases in mainland China, actually, that’s the number it probably was about 10 days ago. And the true number at this moment is significantly larger.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where do you see this going? How do you see this playing out? And maybe base it on what you saw. What happened with SARS?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, when you ask, “Why did SARS end?” you know, you get different answers. In China, one of the most common responses is to say, “Because the weather changed,” as if the virus somehow was related to cold weather, and that as summer approached and it got hotter, the virus disappeared. That makes no sense to me biologically at all. It may make sense in terms of surfaces. Certain cooler surfaces may harbor virus longer than a hot surface. But other than that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

What I observed was that China basically stopped it by doing a massive fever and quarantine program across the entire nation. So it was brought to a stop by a level of vigorous and robust action. But, you see, they’re doing the same thing now. And as I mentioned before, it’s all based on fever checks, and we now know this virus can spread from people who don’t have fevers. So, they’re building a policy that biologically is flawed, won’t work. So, when people ask me, “Where is this all going?” I say, “Look, this is much worse than SARS.” It is not as terrifically dangerous as a virulent flu epidemic. But it’s far more dangerous than anything we’ve seen on our horizon since the arrival of HIV.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at the secretary general of World Health Organization’s comments. He said, “The speed with which China detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome and shared it with WHO and the world are very impressive, and beyond words. So is China’s commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries. … [T]he only way we will defeat this outbreak is for all countries to work together in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation. We are all in this together, and we can only stop it together. This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma. Thank you.”

LAURIE GARRETT: Yeah, I’m not sure I would go as far as he did in praising China for its early response. But he’s right about all the rest of it. We’re not going to get out of this by waving political sticks at each other. The virus doesn’t know the race, the politics, the religion of the human it infects, nor does it give a darn. It’s only we who aid and abet, and we’ve seen this in one kind of epidemic after another, the worst case one being HIV. It is we humans who aid and abet the spread of disease by carrying out our own discriminatory, racist, bigoted attitudes towards other humans rather than tackling the virus.

AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett. I spoke to her earlier this week. To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org.

When we come back, “Deported to Danger: United States Deportation Policies Expose Salvadorans to Death and Abuse.” Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley & The Wailers. This week would have been Bob Marley’s 75th birthday.

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