A foreign journalist covering China has little choice but to get familiar with the basic habits of respiratory viruses. The country’s southern swath has been the historic incubator of many of the world’s new strains of influenza, a product presumably of humans and their food (pigs, chickens and various other creatures) living cheek by jowl by claw.
Now, just as the weather warms in the northern hemisphere, easing annual worries of an influenza pandemic, a new strain of avian influenza called H7N9 has begun to claim lives in China. As of April 2, seven people from Shanghai and the eastern provinces of Jiangsu and Anhui had been confirmed to have the disease. Two died in early March and five are currently in critical condition, according to the Chinese state press.
The fact that a deadly strain of influenza has hatched in China isn’t surprising. But what is new this time is the level of scrutiny the Chinese themselves are giving to the H7N9 virus. China’s state-controlled press is limited by daily guidelines on what it can and cannot print. Yet Weibo, a local social-media service that has become phenomenally popular over the past couple of years since Twitter is banned, has allowed the Chinese public to express itself in unprecedented ways. Weibo is still censored but it’s impossible for government minders to filter all that clutters its information thoroughfares.
In recent weeks, the Weibo community, which is estimated at some 500 million strong, was seized by the surreal news that around 16,000 carcasses of diseased pigs had floated down a river that provides much of Shanghai’s water supply. The municipal government’s reaction to the river of dead pigs was laughable; the city’s water quality, officials maintained, was still within acceptable standards. Weibo users howled.
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When the cases of H7N9 were announced in the official press on April 1, Weibo speculation mounted as to whether there might be a link between floating pigs, avian flu and sick humans in eastern China. By April 2, the Shanghai municipal government was forced to hold a press conference to refute any link between the pigs and the H7N9 virus, noting that 34 porcine carcasses had been tested for H7N9 and that all results had come back negative.
Nevertheless, online skepticism remained about the government’s handling of the new strain of influenza. The same day, on April 2, someone claiming to be a hospital worker at the Nanjing Gulou Hospital, a major city in Jiangsu province, posted on Weibo what he said was a piece of paper with a March 30 diagnosis of H7N9 in a patient. The typed sheet said the patient was a 45-year-old woman who worked as a chicken butcher.
Unsurprisingly, the Weibo post was quickly deleted by censors. But the image of the diagnosis had already been picked up and widely disseminated. A day later, on April 3, Xinhua, China’s state-run newswire ran a story announcing four new cases of H7N9 in Jiangsu province. The patients, Xinhua reported, included a female 45-year-old chicken butcher. One assumes the Weibo post helped hasten Xinhua’s article.
From 2002 to 2003, China witnessed the birth of SARS, which killed hundreds of people around the world. What was just as horrifying was the Chinese government’s slow reaction to the outbreak and its dissembling on the severity of the virus. In one instance in Beijing, critically ill patients were stuffed into ambulances and driven around while health officials came calling at hospitals. Information about such shenanigans eventually leaked out because of a whistle-blower, a brave retired doctor.
Yet had SARS occurred today, there’s little doubt that most every rumor or attempt at official subterfuge would have been aired on Weibo. Online censoring certainly would have followed — or perhaps even triggered an outright halt of Chinese social-media services. But ordinary Chinese citizens now know there is an alternate source of information — one could even say truth — beyond the state-controlled press. That mind shift is monumental.
Avian flu rarely jumps from fowl to human. But a few hardy strains have managed to do just that. Of those that do migrate from bird to man, nearly all cases have involved patients who had some sort of contact with diseased birds. Referring to H7N9, the World Health Organization says “at this point in time, there has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission among contacts of or between the confirmed cases.” But if H7N9 does manage to break that barrier, it could trigger a pandemic like the 2009 H1N1 swine-origin virus that luckily turned out to be less virulent than was initially feared.
Meanwhile, on the afternoon of April 3, another purported doctor piped up on Weibo, this time supposedly from Shanghai’s venerable Tongji Hospital: “Holy god, just now one patient in our hospital died of the new bird flu.” The comment was soon deleted.
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing