The Morning Jolt


Does China Have This Under Control?

Staff members wearing face masks are seen at the Leishenshan Hospital, a makeshift hospital for treating patients with the coronavirus, in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, April 11, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

On the menu today: a deep dive into what we know about how China is handling the outbreak of the coronavirus today; an ominous report out of North Korea that may just be much ado about nothing; and a surprise cancellation suggests that we’ll still be seeing coronavirus-related cancellations in the autumn.

How Is China Handling Its Coronavirus Outbreak Now?

As of yesterday, China’s National Health Commission claims that the country has 82,758 reports of confirmed cases and 4,632 deaths. (And not a single case in the entire 2 million people in the People’s Liberation Army.) Four days ago, Wuhan health officials revised their local death toll from 2,579 to 3,869. The Wall Street Journal quoted some Wuhan residents who said they believed the death toll had to be higher. One half of the previous total is 1,289.5; the increase was 1,290 — almost as if someone arbitrarily decided to raise the existing death toll by fifty percent.

China may be hiding cases, deaths, and the full extent of the outbreak, but the bigger the epidemic, the harder it is to hide. The situation in China is better than at the height of the outbreak, but how much better? To the extent that non-Chinese sources can report on conditions in Chinese cities, life appears to be returning to something resembling a non-crisis state. Everyone must wear masks just about everywhere, and you have to regularly update your health conditions on your government-monitored app:

At checkpoints throughout the city, police and security guards demanded that anyone seeking to come and go present a QR code on their mobile phones that rates the user’s risk of catching the coronavirus. Green codes granted unrestricted movement. A yellow code required seven days of quarantine. Red meant 14 days of quarantine.

Local governments created the algorithms behind the ratings at the behest of China’s State Council and rolled them out in Wuhan and hundreds of other cities on apps hosted by China’s largest tech companies: Alibaba Group, Tencent Holdings, and Baidu Inc. To receive a rating, users must download an app embedded in one of the tech giants’ ubiquitous payment, messaging, or search engine platforms. The apps work differently by city and province, but they typically require users to register with basic information — name, national identity card number, phone number, and home address. Subsequent questions are more invasive, quizzing users on health status and travel history, and asking them to identify any close contacts diagnosed with the virus.

The Guardian’s correspondent in Wuhan describes “employees wait[ing] in lines outside of office buildings to have their throats swabbed, to make sure they do not have the virus before going back to work.”

But every now and then, some report slips out indicating that China is still dealing with a significant problem.

On April 6, “an official newspaper said there could be 10,000 to 20,000 such [asymptomatic] cases in Wuhan. The report was swiftly deleted online.”

Chinese authorities are still claiming they’ve defeated the virus at home, and almost all of the new cases are coming in from travelers abroad. Unsurprisingly, this official spin is fueling xenophobia and racism among Chinese citizens. You probably saw the reports of out-in-the-open discrimination like the McDonalds in Guangzhou declaring that “black people” were not permitted inside. In Beijing, ambassadors from African nations say they and their staff are being hassled and harassed.

Today, “the province of Shaanxi [in northwestern China] reported 21 new infections from abroad, as well as seven cases with no clinical symptoms, all travelers on a commercial flight from Moscow bound for the Chinese capital of Beijing.”

In the capital city, “Beijing’s Chaoyang district, home to dozens of foreign embassies, has been designated a high-risk area after a family of three became infected, the first new cases in the city for 27 days according to the Beijing Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.”

Chinese state media are continuing to claim that the virus is a U.S. bioweapon.

Of course, getting any real information out of Wuhan is a challenge. “Residents in Wuhan who spoke to the Guardian said they had been intimidated by local police and forced to promise not to speak out.”

In the past week, government officials in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Australia have criticized China for a lack of openness about information about how the virus first appeared. (That’s not necessarily an endorsement of the lab-escape theory.)

The outbreak began in Wuhan in December. (I know an unnamed Chinese government source told the South China Morning Post the first case was November 17, but no one else can verify or provide any specifics.)

Wuhan eased its lockdown April 8. If there’s any place on earth that has something close to herd immunity, Wuhan should be the place, as this was the initial epicenter of the outbreak. Then again, maybe no other place outside China can be compared to Wuhan, as the government there used tools and methods to control the spread of the disease that no Western society would ever accept, such as welding doors shut, monitoring the streets with drones, forcing people to stay at home if their temperature was high, even if they had no other symptoms, using facial-recognition software to track the healthy and the sick, and so on.

And if there’s any place in Wuhan that you would think would have lots of people with antibodies against this virus, it would be at the hospitals. And yet . . . one recent study suggests that the percentage of people there with antibodies is way lower than the recent ones of Santa Clara and Los Angeles County:

Wuhan’s Zhongnan Hospital found that 2.4% of its employees and 2% to 3% of recent patients and other visitors, including people tested before returning to work, had developed antibodies, according to senior doctors there.

“This is a long way from herd immunity,” said Wang Xinghuan, the head of Zhongnan hospital, one of the city’s largest. “So a vaccine may be our last hope.”

Wuhan was on lockdown for 76 days. If you use the closure of public schools as the start of America’s “lockdown,” most states have been in lockdown for 37 days (March 16) to 29 days (March 24).

Kim Jong-un Is Gravely Ill! Or He’s Just Fine. We’re Pretty Sure It’s One or the Other.

You sit down, ready to consume the news from overnight, bracing yourself for some terrible coronavirus-related development . . . and then you find out that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has turned into Schrödinger’s dictator, apparently simultaneously alive and near-death.

CNN appeared to have a huge scoop last night: “The US is monitoring intelligence that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s health is in grave danger following a surgery, a US official with direct knowledge tells me.”

(By the way, an obese 37-year-old suddenly having serious complications from surgery? That couldn’t be tied into any particular virus that North Korea insists hasn’t entered their country, could it?)

The CNN article never quite says “he’s on his deathbed.”

Kim recently missed the celebration of his grandfather’s birthday on April 15, which raised speculation about his well-being. He had been seen four days before that at a government meeting.

Another US official told CNN Monday that the concerns about Kim’s health are credible but the severity is hard to assess.

Daily NK, an online newspaper based in South Korea that focuses on North Korea, reports that Kim reportedly received a cardiovascular system procedure on April 12.

Kim received the cardiovascular system procedure because of “excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork,” according to the news site, and is now receiving treatment in a villa in Hyangsan County following his procedure.

But this morning, the South Koreans and Chinese are throwing cold water on the reports, and they presumably would be in a better position to know. As much as the North Korean regime would want to keep their leader’s serious illness quiet, at some point other countries watching Pyongyang would see high-ranking officials changing their routines, indicating that something significant was going on. Intelligence agencies can’t always tell what happened, but they can often tell that something new and unexpected has happened:

South Korea and China have played down speculation that Kim Jong-un is seriously ill, after a Seoul-based website reported that the North Korean leader had undergone heart surgery.

Daily NK claimed Kim, who has not been seen in public for 10 days, was being treated at a private villa following the procedure this month.

CNN, meanwhile, cited an anonymous US official as saying that Washington was “monitoring intelligence” suggesting that Kim was in “grave danger.”

But Kang Min-seok, a spokesman at South Korea’s presidential Blue House, said there was “nothing to confirm rumours about chairman Kim Jong-un’s health, and no special movement has been detected inside North Korea as of now.”

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted an unnamed government official saying that reports Kim was seriously ill were “not true.”

An official at the Chinese Communist party’s international liaison department, which deals with North Korea, told Reuters there was no reason to believe Kim was critically ill.

Strange as it sounds, maybe it’s better for all of us if Little Rocket Man pulls through okay. Right now, if you try to call any world leader or organization to warn them about a sudden crisis, you’re probably going to get some version of the message, “We’re sorry, all circuits are busy now. Please try again later.” If Kim Jong-un’s crazy little heart keeps beating, at least we know who’s in charge over there, and we don’t have to worry about a struggle for succession in a country with nuclear weapons.

Good News If You Can’t Stand Crowds

Events with big crowds are probably not coming back into our lives until 2021. Germany just canceled Oktoberfest, which actually begins in mid-September and ends in early October.

ADDENDUM: Well, now we all know what to get our wonderful mothers for Mother’s Day next month: a big, beautiful barrel of oil. You never know when you might need one, and at these prices, who can say no, right?