I READ with growing unease David Pratt’s commentary on the coronavirus and the Chinese government’s efforts to “suppress” it (Attempt to hush up the coronavirus has backfired spectacularly, February 14). He uses the piece to compare COVID-19 with the other “disease” that stalks China, that of political autocracy.

I am no fan of the Chinese Government nor its desire to control the lives and information flows within Chinese society but I think Mr Pratt falls very short on understanding what has motivated the government in this particular episode. Take his comment, “officials from the Communist Party of China (CPC) tend to prioritise stability, even if it means suppressing important information that, quite clearly, the public and wider world in this instance were clamouring to know”. We should, in this instance, thank our lucky stars that they know their own people better than Mr Pratt does.

READ MORE: David Pratt: Coronavirus is not the only disease stalking China right now

Wuhan is a city of 11 million people, it is the ninth biggest city in China. When I visited it in the early 1990s its population was around 7.5 million. That is a growth rate of 47% over the last 20 years (and I can assure you, the official total will be well under-reported for very specific local reasons). China’s population, over the same period, has grown by 18%. What does that tell us about Wuhan? There has been massive inward migration as the city has grown to be one of the largest industrial centres in China.

Wuhan is therefore a city with a recent migrant population well in excess of two million, probably closer to five to 10 million if migrant workers were properly reported. By suppressing information about the nature of the virus, the authorities bought time to lock down the city before those “clamouring for information” could do unimaginable damage. Had Dr Li Wenliang’s dire warnings been trumpeted far and wide at the time he first expressed them, the stampede of residents out of Wuhan – especially in the run-up to Chinese New Year, when people travel to their home villages and towns anyway – would have been truly catastrophic for China as a whole and the rest of the world. Those that could have would have jumped on the first plane out to anywhere in an effort to escape the worst, while undoubtedly spreading it far and wide.

Why would I argue that that would be the case? Because, truth be told, Chinese people are very sensitive to outbreaks of any nature but particularly health problems. It is what comes of living on top of one another day in, day out. Close living proximity, packed commuter transport, mass production workplaces, you name it and Chinese people are cheek-by-jowl all the time. They know that viruses spread like wildfire and have a tendency to panic as a result. Fleeing the centre of an outbreak is just human nature.

Take the reaction in Hong Kong. Every day hundreds of thousands of perfectly healthy citizens are queuing for face masks. Almost everyone on the streets is wearing a mask (gloves, which are a much better preventative measure, are rarely seen) to the extent that medical clinics are closing because essential staff – nurses and doctors – can’t access face masks. Toilet paper has been emptied from the shelves, with pictures of some people carting around 20-40 rolls at a time for themselves, regardless of their fellow Hong Kongers’ likely discomfort. Panic and hysteria rules.

Had the vile CPC allowed the free information flow so beloved of Mr Pratt, the coronavirus would be rife in every corner of the globe by now. By locking down Wuhan and forcing its inhabitants to stay put – in one of the most polluted places in China, a major factor in the death toll there – China has internalised the problem and, touch wood, saved the rest of us.

Think on that, Mr Pratt. Would western democracies have taken the pain in the same way?

Jim Walker
Hong Kong