While more than 400 million Chinese citizens are preparing to receive the new lunar year on January 24, with one of the largest seasonal migrations on the planet, initial rumors about a new form of coronavirus are confirmed worldwide, and although reluctantly, also in China.
Rumors circulate in China since mid-January 2020 about a viral outbreak, initially detected in the city of Wuhan, in the center of the country. Until recently, Chinese social media did not mention the virus, popularly known as Wuhan coronavirus, because of strict laws that punish the spread of “fake news.”
However, now that millions of travelers are preparing to visit their families throughout the country during the holidays, there is a fear that it will spread, after the number of confirmed cases has tripled to more than 200.
Wuhan coronavirus is a new viral strain that causes pneumonia and, in the most severe cases, can cause lung failure. The first case was registered on December 8, 2019, although an official document issued by Wuhan health authorities on the mysterious virus did not begin to circulate online until December 30. On 31, the National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China moved to Wuhan to investigate the situation. Only then were Chinese news agencies allowed to cover the Wuhan outbreak.
At the end of December, the authorities reported 27 cases, of which seven patients were in serious condition. Most of the 27 infected patients in December had worked at the Wuhan Huanan fresh produce market, where wild animals are sold, which was closed on January 1. In addition, on December 31, Wuhan health authorities declared that there were no cases of transmission among humans.
Since the origin of the virus is very likely to be in wild animals, some Internet users have associated it with the 2003 SARS outbreak that caused 774 deaths in 37 countries. It was also rumored online that Wuhan health authorities did not isolate patients with less severe symptoms and that human transmissions had occurred due to this cause.
The Chinese authorities began to repress what were considered “stirring” rumors. At least eight Internet users were questioned by the Wuhan Police on January 1, 2020, while many others saw their accounts on social networks blocked by “spreading rumors”
Many Internet users were outraged by what they considered a smoke screen of the authorities:
民眾 傳 謠 還不 是 （了 都 ， 也 說法 ， 這 也 怪 大家 ，？ 我 的 ， 恐慌 自救 的 權利 還 沒有 嗎？
People rumored because the authorities have not explained what caused the outbreak. How can you blame people for that? I have no right to speak, I have no right to know the truth, do I not even have the right to be safe?
On January 7, medical experts confirmed that Wuhan pneumonia is caused by a new coronavirus that had never been found in the human body. According to a group of Chinese scientists, the virus is more closely related to strains collected in bats than with SARS or MERS.
On January 9, the virus caused the first death in Wuhan. On January 13, Japan and Thailand confirmed cases in people who had recently been to China.
Still, it seems that Chinese health authorities remained more concerned with controlling panic than with the spread of the disease. On January 18, in an infographic published by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Government declared that the new virus is not SARS and that “human transmission is limited.”
Chinese Internet users say they feel pressured to avoid attracting attention to new cases in social media. An Internet user said he was tagged by bots and patriots on the Chinese Weibo platform after mentioning his concern about the situation on his wall.
On January 19, another “rumor” claimed that some health workers at a hospital in the coastal province of Canton had been contaminated with the Wuhan coronavirus, although the hospital denied the rumor on its website. The Global Times, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, also confirmed that it was a simple rumor.
On January 20, Chinese Central Television interviewed Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a leading pulmonologist who discovered the SARS coronavirus in 2003. The doctor confirmed that there were 14 media workers affected by the virus in Wuhan, one in critical condition.
Wuhan virus has become the hottest topic on social media platforms. In the end, the Chinese public has achieved the right to express their justified concern about this new virus.