Government announcements of declining Wuhan (covid19) virus infections are unverified while verifiable data indicates the virus is still a serious problem in Wuhan and surrounding areas. The government has increased censorship efforts within China to slow the spread of personal reports of what is actually going on in Wuhan. Uncensored data indicates that the virus is still active. Government efforts to get the economy going again are running into problems with a workforce living among the evidence that the government claims are false. Lots of reports from inside Wuhan get past the Chinese censors (the Golden Shield or Great Firewall Of China) and all provide evidence of a much higher death rate in Wuhan; over 40,000 deaths compared to the official 3,300 number.
Government propaganda has shifted to blaming the U.S. Army for starting the pandemic in Wuhan by sending infected soldiers to an international military competition held near Wuhan in late 2019. New outbreaks of the virus are blamed on foreign visitors, not from Chinese coming from Wuhan. The government ordered Chinese researchers to halt publishing their virus related research until government censors can decide if that data is compatible with current propaganda goals. In 2019 the central government had a policy of allowing bad news to reach the senior leadership. But the initial (early December 2019) medical data warning of a new virus and calling for quarantine in Wuhan did not have the desired effect. Local officials would not pass on that message because they feared it would make them look bad. They attempted to conceal the impact of covid19 but that failed, is still failing and now the national government is trying to shift blame to foreigners for mismanaging efforts to contain the virus.
There is other evidence outside China. This comes from the millions of protective masks and covid19 test kits China has shipped to nations around the world as donations or sales. Over half the masks were found to be defective and the failure rates were even higher with test kits. While the donations were appreciated it is standard practice in many countries to do a random sample test of medical supplies to ensure that the items are safe and effective. Low reliability of medical items would explain China reporting a decline in virus activity that local people contradict. China denies the reports of defective equipment but won’t let anyone outside China verify those claims inside China.
Another problem the government tries to hide is the fact that continued virus activity is local and still concentrated in the city of Wuhan. When the government recently declared much of Hubei province free of the virus and ordered businesses and movie theaters reopened, the response was mixed. In some areas, people believed the virus was still active because enough had witnessed such activity. In other areas, popular opinion agreed with the government and people were willing to go back to work. This renewed economic activity, or lack of it, can be tracked via earth sensing satellites that monitor and measure weather and pollution. China has tried to manipulate this satellite data as well but, while they could order factories to turn all the lights on, they could not fake the pollution caused by the actual production. That requires people in the factory to operate the equipment.
It’s important to get the economy going again because the three months of closures and disruptions were not limited to Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province. These are major manufacturing areas that supply components to other manufacturers in China. With Wuhan and much of Hubei shut down, the closures quickly spread to firms in other provinces. For example, police checkpoints were erected on some provincial borders adjacent to Hubei province. When the central government declared the quarantine of Hubei lifted in late March, officials in neighboring Jiangxi province disagreed and ordered police operating the border control checkpoints to keep Hubei workers out. That led to a violent response from Hubei residents who insisted on returning to their jobs and other business in Jiangxi. The central government has lost a lot of credibility and authority because of the deception and incompetence since December. Even senior provincial officials are willing to defy the central government because of its poor performance and deceptions.
Another false claim is that the military is completely virus free. That’s two million personnel, many of them called on to work with civilians to provide aid or enforce quarantines. It’s not the case that the military was never threatened by the virus. The age and physical condition of the troops meant they were at very low risk of serious illness or death from the virus. Western forces have suffered very few virus infections and most of the infected recover quickly. Military personnel may live and work in close proximity but they are disciplined and trained to deal with emergencies like this. So far this year the Chinese military has canceled several training exercises and, in general, the military is much less active with its military activities. Compared to Western forces, a much higher proportion of Chinese troops were assigned to working areas with many infected civilians. To claim zero infections among these troops is blatant propaganda. So are many of the other reports on the situation the Chinese broadcast to the world.
Since late December the major Western intelligence agencies have made obtaining accurate covid19 impact data from nations obviously infected but able to prevent foreigners from easily obtaining accurate data on that. Russia and North Korea are claiming little or no virus impact. Russians censors are not as effective as the Chinese but virus impact data is difficult to get out of Russia. There are Internet based reports of more virus activity than the Russian government will admit. North Korea is even more difficult than China to get accurate virus impact data from. North Korea claims they have no virus infections but are also asking China, Russia and South Korea for medical assistance. Little can be had from China or Russia because both these neighbors are overwhelmed with covid19 infections that officially don’t exist. Iran is another secretive victim of covid19 and forced to admit to heavy losses because there is currently a popular uprising against its religious dictatorship. All these dictatorships have long been a military threat to the West but now the threat is from their concealment of the pandemic's effects in their countries.
Foreign economists believe the covid19 impact on the Chinese economy will cut annual GDP growth for 2020 from six percent to three percent or less. If the Chinese economic slowdown continues into April, the 2020 GDP growth forecasts decline to two percent or less. The government insisted that GDP growth would be closer to five or six percent despite the virus related losses. That assumed the virus problem did not linger or get worse and that companies were able to restart their businesses when the government lifted travel and quarantine restrictions in most of China. Throughout the virus crises 24 of China’s 34 provinces reported that they have few or no covid19 infections, and these provinces have largely returned to normal. That is important because, in provinces that still have more infections, local governments and unofficial citizen groups are often not cooperating and millions of workers are still unable or unwilling to return to work. This pushes many (at least a third) of firms dangerously close to bankruptcy. The government now promises low-interest loans to help deal with that. What the government can’t seem to handle is local conditions that do not conform to government goals and propaganda.
Economists initially expected the Chinese economy to make a “V” shaped recovery but that depended on how long the outbreak lasts and how many foreign firms move operations out of China and how many foreign customers shift to non-Chinese suppliers. It could be a “U” shaped recovery or worse. It’s not just the virus outbreak but various other problems with doing business in or with China. Whatever damage is done to the Chinese economy will be felt more now than in previous crises. Since 2008 Chinese economic growth has comprised 37 percent of global GDP growth. China has become like the U.S. (the world’s largest economy), crucial to global economic health and growth. If the covid19 economic disruptions continue for another month or two that could trigger a worldwide economic recession and long-term damage to Chinese exporters. It is the enormous economic growth during the last three decades than enabled China to create a modern, well trained military that is increasingly being used to threaten neighbors. China will be even more of a threat as its economic power declines.
The Rest Of East Asia
China is also concerned that most other East Asian nations did a much better job of dealing with covid19. The very effective response of Taiwan was particularly embarrassing, as Chinese pressure in the UN has kept Taiwan from belonging to international health groups, like WHO. That makes it more difficult for the rest of the world to learn how Taiwan was more effective in dealing with covid19. Local allies of Taiwan, like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and so on are able to get Taiwan virus tips quickly because all these nations are united in confronting Chinese aggression in the region. Covid19 is seen as just another problem with being a neighbor of China.
Covid19 quickly spread to Korea because both Koreas still have a lot of commercial visitors from China, as well as tourists. South Korea promptly mobilized a very effective national public health effort to deal with the crises. In North Korea, the government made all information relating to covid19 a state secret and denied that covid19 was a problem in North Korea. North Korea has no real public health capability, especially the ability to monitor the overall impact of covid19. That was not possible and the only data collected about the disease impact on the military. That data was secret but, because just about every family in the country has someone in the military, the data got leaked. By early March several thousand North Koreas soldiers appear to have been quarantined on suspicion of having the virus. These cases were almost all along the Chinese border. North Korea cannot afford to test many people for covid19. Instead, the army has been ordered to isolate any soldiers who exhibit symptoms of the virus. This probably puts some non-covid19 patients in quarantine with those who do have it. Nearly 200 soldiers have died recently of “fever” and families are being told the bodies were cremated.
In South Korea, there have been 9,800 confirmed cases of the virus so far with 162 deaths. Compared to China and North Korea, South Korea has suffered a much lower death rate for people infected. In China, the death rate has been 3-4 percent while in South Korea it has been 0.7 percent. South Korea with a population (51 million) twice as large as in the north has so far apparently suffered 80 percent fewer covid19 deaths.
By any measure, South Korea has an excellent health system. As a result, South Korea has been able to cope and has already contained the virus, with the number of new cases declining and fewer deaths per thousand infected people. Despite this superior performance, North Korea will not accept any South Korean help in this matter because the official word in the north is that the government kept the virus out. In most of the country that is true. But along the still porous Chinese border, it is no secret with the locals that covid19 got into their part of North Korea. People living near the Chinese border increasingly ignore government propaganda and take their own precautions to avoid the disease. While the military has a rudimentary health system for their personnel and some resources to deal with covid19 infections, modern health care is only available to the most senior officials both military and non-military. These officials also have access to the outside world and what is really going on with covid19 in other countries.
Yet there are also numerous reports of civilian deaths, amounting to several hundred so far. Most of these deaths are near the Chinese border or in a few cities, including the capital, where travelers (North Korean or Chinese) are regularly found. Some of these travelers regularly crossed the border illegally. The government knows this but does not know who they are or even how many are still active. The Chinese health system is much more capable and there have been some (less than a hundred) cases of covid19 found in towns and cities along the North Korean border. Unlike North Korea, China can treat these patients and most recover. Covid19 has an incubation period of 7-14 days before an infected person feels the symptoms. Most people with it never feel sick and their immune systems eventually eliminate the virus, or most of it. In other words, there was plenty of opportunities for covid19 to spread into North Korea before the borders were closed at the end of January. While no covid19 deaths are reported in North Korea, the deaths do occur in the capital and along the Chinese border where such deaths are attributed to influenza or simply “fever”. In the capital and the military, it is possible to isolate people with “fever” but in the rest of the country, there is improvisation because there are few hospitals and most have limited medical supplies. There are some private clinics for the donju (legal entrepreneurs) but even these cannot get new medical supplies because of the border shutdown. One thing all medical facilities have been ordered to do, until further notice, is to promptly cremate the bodies of all those who have died of this unspecified fever. South Korea has been asked for aid, but not specifically to deal with covid19.
North Korea is going through the covid19 epidemic the old fashioned way and that is not all that shocking in the north, where people are perplexed by all the fuss. After all, the North Korean government took no precautions during SARS (2003) and MERS (2015) virus outbreaks. What is different about covid19 is that it spreads more easily and quickly. Not to the extent that it could be described as an “exterminating disease”. Only a few percent of those infected die and these are mainly the very old or already very sick. In North Korea, you have to add a fourth vulnerable group; the malnourished. Food shortages have been worse the past few years and a lot more people are simply not getting enough to eat. There are also more homeless children and adults in urban areas, and they tend to be in poor health.
Some of these deaths may be from other causes but even North Korea medical personnel, at least outside the capital, do not have the diagnostic equipment to confirm covid19 deaths. Officially there is a national health-care system but the reality is that only the capital and the military have any significant medical resources. The only place where you see a lot of people wearing face masks is the capital where only key security personnel and the most elite officials (the one percenters) were issued masks. Other people improvise.
North Korea has suppressed any official, or unofficial, news of what is really happening. But North Koreans still have their cell phones, although they have to use carefully selected code words to pass on covid19 related news. Information brokers on the Chinese side of the border are still getting plenty of business even though much less information is getting out since the government began restricting movement within North Korea and across the border in January. On February 20 all schools (except for a few elite science programs) were shut down for a month. Long distance travel by train, plane, automobile or boat was restricted or banned.
The border ban includes North Koreans arrested in China for being there illegally. It is also illegal to leave North Korea without permission and these prisoners are usually transferred back to North Korea for punishment. That has been halted until the covid19 danger has passed. The only legal crossings from North Korea are foreign diplomats being expelled on suspicion of having covid19. The military has banned leave for soldiers and restricted who can leave the base. New recruits are being turned down if they have any indications of sickness, especially lung related. Lacking the resources to test for covid19, military doctors are using cruder method that see more conscripts having their induction delayed for months or longer. The military only takes in new recruits twice a year but one of those induction periods occurs in mid-January and lasts about a month. The military also discharges soldiers who have completed their enlistments (of up to ten years) at the same time. These discharges have been delayed as well, for a month or more. Same deal for officers retiring or completing their mandatory active service before going into the reserves.
North Korea also demanded that Chinese border guards ban civilians from even approaching the Yalu River that comprises most of the border. North Korea threatened to use violence to enforce this ban. China told North Korea to tone down the rhetoric before something unfortunate, for North Korea, happened.
In early February North Korea halted all Chinese tourism despite the fact that this is a major source of foreign currency, and curbed normal (business and government) travel to China. North Korea is also very poor and in no condition to deal with an outbreak of the new virus. Yet North Korea still has a lot of smugglers operating along the Chinese border and in some coastal areas.
The border with China has been closed to major traffic since January 30th and that means bulk imports of food and fuel are not arriving. These are legal imports that China is the major supplier of. North Korea cannot afford to maintain much in the way of food or fuel reserves and what reserves do exist are for the military, in case there is a war or other national emergency. These supplies may already have been released to provincial security forces (soldiers and police) but they won’t last long if the Chines border remains closed.
In contrast, by the end of February, the South Korean army has thousands of soldiers quarantined until they are cleared of any possible coronavirus infection. All these soldiers had visited China, Hong Kong or Macao recently and the quarantine was just a precaution often applied to any recent South Korean visitors to China.
March 30, 2020: China announced that the covid19 epidemic was over, or at least stalled and contained in China. Many local reports indicate otherwise but the police are hunting down and arresting those who make those reports. Despite that new reports keep appearing.
March 29, 2020: North Korea fired two more ballistic missiles from an east coast base. Both missiles traveled about 230 kilometers towards Japan before landing in the ocean. North Korea launched 13 missiles in 2019. So far eight missiles have been launched in 2020, during four separate incidents this month.
March 26, 2020: Hong Kong has suffered much less from covid19 than the rest of China. The local government hoped that the quarantine rules that are a part of containing the virus would eliminate the protests that have been going on since June 2019. The quarantine rules did halt the mass demonstrations but subsequent opinion polls showed public approval of the protestors had increased anyway.