The New York Times on Feb. 6, 2020 was the first mainstream media outlet to report that Chinese government authorities responding to the country’s coronavirus epidemic had ordered round-the-clock house to house police searches to take the temperatures of all residents in Wuhan and detain anyone found to be sick or suspected of being sick using force, if necessary, and then “warehousing them in enormous quarantine centers.” A senior Chinese official announced that both the city where the epidemic began and the whole country face “wartime conditions” and that “There must be no deserters, or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever.”1
On Feb. 8 and 9, the UK newspaper Daily Mail posted a video filmed in Wuhan showing people suspected of being infected forcefully being dragged from their homes by officials wearing masks and white protective suits, as the men and women shout out in protest and unsuccessfully struggle to break free.2 Another video shows officials wearing masks, dressed in black and carrying large metal sticks chasing a man suspected of being infected with coronavirus through the largely deserted streets of the city as he runs away trying to escape from being put into one of the mass quarantine camps.
Chinese authorities have encouraged people to inform on each other, with money rewards being offered to those who report suspicions about neighbors they believe may be infected. In some cases, doors of homes have been barricaded from the outside to keep those suspected of being infected inside, with warning signs posted to keep others away.3 According to a Feb. 4 New York Times article:
All across the country, despite China’s vast surveillance network with its facial recognition systems and high-end cameras that is increasingly used to track its 1.4 billion people, the government has turned to familiar authoritarian techniques—like setting up dragnets and asking neighbors to inform on one another—as it tries to contain the outbreak.4
WHO: “Very Grave Threat for the Rest of the World”
On Feb. 11, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared that China’s coronavirus outbreak poses a “very grave threat for the rest of the world.” He called for creation of a roadmap to accelerate development of drugs and vaccines “around which research and donors will align.”5
Dr. Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva:6
To be honest, a virus is more powerful in creating political, economic and social upheaval than any terrorist attack… A virus can have more powerful consequences than any terrorist action…If the world doesn’t want to wake up and consider this enemy virus as public enemy number 1, I don’t think we will learn from our lessons.
As of Feb.11, there had been 43,139 cases of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) confirmed globally. All but a few hundred cases had occurred in mainland China with a total of 1,018 reported deaths.7
Similar to influenza, there has been an overall case fatality rate of between two and three percent so far for COVID-19. Like with influenza, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates is the cause of between 12,000 and 60,000 deaths in the U.S. every year,8 and other respiratory diseases caused by viruses or bacteria, pneumonia is the most frequent and severe complication of novel coronavirus infection that leads to hospitalization and death. Those over age 50 with underlying chronic health conditions like heart disease or diabetes, especially men, are thought to be at greater risk for pneumonia complications of the novel coronavirus infection.9
Whistleblower Doctor Dies in Hospital
According to the Feb. 6 New York Times article, the people of Wuhan were shaken by the police action following an “emotional gut punch” news report that a young doctor, who had been silenced for warning people late last year that there was an unusual coronavirus outbreak in the city, had died at the Wuhan City Central Hospital from the infection. CNN reported that the 34-year old opthalmologist, Li Wenliang, had been questioned by local authorities in December 2019 after he alerted colleagues and was “later summoned by Wuhan police to sign a reprimand letter in which is was accused of ‘spreading rumors online’ and ‘severely disrupting social order.’”12
Dr. Wenliang became a hero figure in China and there are questions surrounding his death because he was threatened with punishment by the police and most coronavirus deaths have been senior citizens with underlying health conditions.13 An unnamed senior advisor to the Chinese government reportedly told the Financial Times that, “In the current political atmosphere, which values obedience more than competence, local officials have an incentive to avoid taking responsibility.”14
The Feb. 6 New York Times article described the feeling of despair among residents in the city of 11 million this way:
With the sick being herded into makeshift quarantine camps, with minimal medical care, a growing sense of abandonment and fear has taken hold in Wuhan, fueling the sense that the city and surrounding province of Hubei are being sacrificed for the greater good of China.
Hospitals Built, Quarantine Centers Created for Sick People
In the past four weeks, China has built several new hospitals and created makeshift medical treatment centers in a sports stadium, an exhibition center and building complex, in an attempt to house thousands of sick people. Reports from Wuhan suggest that there is a shortage of protective gear, as well as medical supplies to test and treat sick patients and that many Wuhan residents with respiratory symptoms are being left untested and untreated.
Outside observers are asking questions about whether the shelters are equipped with enough medical supplies and food or are staffed well enough to provide basic care to patients and prevent spread of not only coronavirus infections, but also a range of bacterial and viral diseases that can spread easily in crowded facilities.15
China Censoring Information on Social Media Platforms
According to a Feb. 6, 2020 report by China Media Project, Chinese authorities have been censoring information published by news organizations and social media platforms criticizing the government’s response to the outbreak:16
A notice issued yesterday by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the central agency for control of the internet and social media, provides a glimpse not just of the actions being taken now by the authorities to control information about the coronavirus epidemic, but also of the platforms and activities that have threatened the Party’s dominance of information in recent days.
The notice, for example, singles out a number of WeChat public accounts alleged to have “illegally carried out reporting activities,” meaning that they are accused of acting journalistically, pursuing their own information on the epidemic. It orders the removal from app stores of “Pipi Gaoxiao,” a platform for the sharing of short videos, suggesting that material on the platform has “spread panic.”
On Feb. 7, Bloomberg News reported that two Chinese citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin “have served as the world’s eyes and ears inside the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak” in Wuhan by broadcasting scenes real time via their cell phones. Many of their videos have been posted to Twitter and reposted on YouTube.17
Fang was briefly detained by authorities for taking video of corpses in a hospital and for filming officials in hazmat suits breaking down his apartment door to take him into quarantine, but was released after thousands of public comments urging that he be set free. Chen, who had posted on Twitter that, “It’s easy to put 1,000 beds in a stadium, but how do 1000 people eat together? How to bathe, how to go to the toilet?” was first reported missing and then reported to have been arrested by authorities and put in quarantine.18
Bloomberg News observed:
China’s internet watchdog has stepped up its policing efforts, announcing on Wednesday it would conduct “targeted supervision” on the largest social media platforms including Weibo, Tencent’s WeChat and ByteDance’s Douyin. The regulator has already frozen a raft of social media accounts, then stepped up online scrubbing to quiet a wave of confused outrage over the death of the doctor that first raised red flags about the disease. In this environment, U.S.-based Twitter has emerged as the destination for locals seeking information about the spread of the virus. It’s officially banned in the country, but many people hop the Great Firewall and access the platform via virtual private networks.19
Cruise Ships Detained in Japan and Italy
Globally, the cruise line industry has been hard hit by quarantine measures taken by governments. Thousands of passengers and crews on big oceanliners are unable to disembark if someone on the boat tests positive for coronavirus.
CNN reported on Feb. 4 that some 6,000 passengers on a cruise ship in Italy were quarantined at the end of January after two guests were suspected of being infected but then tested negative for the Wuhan coronavirus. Japan ordered a lockdown and quarantine of more than 3,500 passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama harbor after it was revealed an 80-year old man from Hong Kong flew to Tokyo and spent a few days on the ship and later tested positive for coronavirus.20 Five days later, NBC reported that 70 passengers on ship had tested positive for coronavirus, including 14 Americans, and medication was being distributed on board to those who needed it, while some of the sick passengers have been taken to hospitals. The ship is expected to remain in quarantine until Feb. 19 and trained counselors are counseling passengers experiencing stress by telephone.21
Daily Mail reported on Feb. 8 that Britain is considering a ban on travel into the country by foreign nationals who have visited China in the previous 14 days, a ban that has already been put in place by 16 countries, including the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.22 A professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was quoted as saying that modeling showed there are “ten times more cases [of coronavirus infection] than have been reported—or even more” because “It’s a mild disease that might be missed if somebody doesn’t seek healthcare. And none of the tests is going to be 100 percent sensitive so it is not unusual to only capture maybe 10 percent of the cases.”
U.S. Declares Public Health Emergency, Bans Entry of Foreign Nationals
On Jan. 31, 2020, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar held a press conference and declared a public health emergency in the U.S. due to the coronavirus epidemic in China.23 He said U.S. citizens, who have been in China’s Hubei Province the previous 14 days will be subject to a 14-day mandatory quarantine prior to entering the U.S. In addition, the U.S. is temporarily suspending entry of most travelers who have recently been in China if they are not U.S. citizens.24
According to National Public Radio (NPR), at the HHS press conference the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci, MD, said, “People want to know why we’re paying so much attention to the novel coronavirus.” He pointed to seasonal influenza, which Dr. Fauci said is predictable, but with the coronavirus “there are a lot of unknowns” and “the numbers of cases has steeply inclined each and every day.” Fauci added that at the beginning of the outbreak, it wasn’t clear whether an infected person without symptoms could transmit the virus to another person but it is now known there are “asymptomatic infections.”25
At the same time, Bloomberg News reported that:26
The coronavirus has been compared to the flu, which every year infects 10 million to 50 million people in the U.S., leaving tens of thousands of people dead, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a mild-mannered serial killer. The aggressive response to the coronavirus is meant to stop the new pathogen from becoming a deadlier copycat.
According to Bloomberg News, the Director of the Emergencies Programme of the World Health Organization (WHO) said, “A relatively mild virus can cause a lot of damage if a lot of people get it.”
U.S. Military Prepares Quarantine Centers
On Feb. 1, 2020, the Secretary of Defense (DoD) Mark Esper approved a request from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for housing support at military bases for 1,000 people, including American citizens who arrive from other countries and could be subject to mandatory quarantine. Pentagon officials selected four military installations as quarantine centers, including in Fort Carson, Colorado; Travis Air Force Base and Marine Corps Air Station in California and Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. DoD personnel would only provide housing support and HHS would be responsible for all care and transportation of those being quarantined on military bases.27
According to a Feb. 1 Reuters article, an anonymous source at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said that the mandatory quarantine is the first in more than half a century and that “state and local authorities will likely play a role with mandatory quarantines:”28
“Since this hasn’t been done in 51 years there’s quite the scramble to work through all the procedures,” a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said, adding that the last mandatory quarantine was ordered to fight smallpox. The official, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said DHS personnel would take over running medical screenings at airports this weekend to free up their CDC counterparts for other tasks. State and local authorities will likely play a role with mandatory quarantines, the official said, which could mean “a lot of variance across the country for how it gets implemented.”
On Feb. 6, the DoD received an additional request from HHS officials to assist with the creation of more quarantine sites at military bases near 11 major commercial airports to detain and test passengers suspected of being potentially infected with COVID-19. The list includes Pearl Harbor-Hickam, HI (HNL); Great Lakes Training Center Navy Base, IL (ORD); Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, TX (DFW); March ARB, CA (LAX); Travis AFB, CA (SFO); Dobbins ARB, GA (ATL); Fort Hamilton, NY (JFK); and Naval Base Kitsap, WA (SEA).29
HHS Asks for Expanded Emergency Powers in 2016
The year after measles outbreaks were reported at Disneyland in 2015, HHS published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in the Aug. 15, 2016 Federal Register to amend the Public Health Service Act. The amendment gave federal government officials expanded police power to restrict the freedom of a person entering the U.S. or traveling between states if officials believe the person is infected or could become infected with certain kinds of diseases.230
Until the 21st century, the list of contagious diseases permitting federal government officials to detain and involuntarily quarantine people was confined to a very serious contagious diseases with high mortality, including yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, diphtheria, infectious tuberculosis, and the plague.31 32Polio was never put on the list.
Between 2003 and 2014, HHS officials advised two Presidents to issue Executive Orders to expand the “isolate and quarantine” list. In 2003, Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers, such as Ebola, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS were added.33 In 2005, pandemic influenza was added.34 In 2014, the Presidential Executive Order did not name a specific disease that would warrant detention and quarantine, it simply described “diseases associated with fever and signs and symptoms of pneumonia or other respiratory illness” that have “the potential to cause a pandemic” or are “highly likely to cause mortality or serious morbidity if not properly controlled.”35
For More Information on Government Police Power to Quarantine
The National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) provides information here about federal and state government police powers to enforce mandatory detention, isolation and quarantine of Americans who have or are suspected to have certain infectious diseases.
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2 Carr J. Coronavirus death toll hits 811 as virus claims more lives than 2003 SARS outbreak – as Beijing starts rounding up sufferers and videos show hazmat suit-clad goons dragging people from their homes. Daily Mail Feb. 8. 2020.
3 Tomo News. China is sealing people in their homes. Feb. 7, 2020.
4 Mozur P. China, Desperate to Stop Coronavirus, Turns Neighbor Against Neighbor. New York Times Feb. 4, 2020.
5 Nebehay S. Coronavirus emergency ‘holds a very grave threat’ for world: WHO. Reuters Feb. 11, 2020.
6 ABC News. WHO warns coronavirus, now dubbed COVID-19, is ‘public enemy number 1’ and potentially more powerful than terrorism. Feb. 11, 2020.
7 Johns Hopkins University Center for Science and Engineering. 2019 n-CoV Global Cases. Feb. 11, 2020.
8 U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Disease Burden of Influenza. Jan. 20, 2020.
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11 McNutt M. Letter from Office of Science & Technology Policy to National Academy of Sciences requesting Rapid Response Assessment of 2019-nCoV Data Needs. Executive Office of the President Feb. 3, 2020.
12 Xiong Y, Culver D, Paget S. Chinese hospital announces that whistleblower doctor is dead. CNN Feb. 6, 2020.
13 Mole B. China takes desperate, “wartime” measures to stop coronavirus in Wuhan. Ars Technica Feb. 7, 2020.
14 McKay T. China Orders Mandatory Coronavirus Checks in Wuhan And All Infected Moved to Quarantine Camps. Gizmodo Feb. 7, 2020.
15 Mole B. China takes desperate, “wartime” measures to stop coronavirus in Wuhan. Ars Technica Feb. 7, 2020.
16 Bandurski D. Internet Giants Warned Amid Coronavirus Crackdown. China Media Project Feb. 6, 2020.
17 Chen LY. Citizen Journalist Covering Virus Outbreak from Wuhan Goes Missing. Bloomberg News Feb. 7, 2020.
18 Matthews D. Family ‘deeply worried’ after citizen journalist covering coronavirus outbreak goes missing. New York Daily News Feb. 10, 2020.
19 Chen LY. Citizen Journalist Covering Virus Outbreak from Wuhan Goes Missing. Bloomberg News Feb. 7, 2020.
20 CNN Wire. Cruise Ship Quarantined in Japan After Passenger Diagnosed with Coronavirus. Feb. 4, 2020.
21 NBC News. 14 Americans aboard quarantined cruise ship now confirmed to have coronavirus. Feb. 9. 2020.
22 Jewell B. Eighty-six people die of coronavirus in a DAY in China as Beijing begins mass arrest of sufferers and videos show hazmat suit-clad goons dragging people from their homes as the death toll hits 724. Daily Mail Feb. 8, 2020.
23 HHS. Secretary Azar Declares Public Health Emergency for United States for 2019 Novel Coronavirus. HHS Press Release Jan. 31, 2020.
24 Aubrey A. Trump Declares Coronavirus A Public Health Emergency and Restricts Travel from China. NPR Jan. 31, 2020.
26 Cortez M, Langreth R. Coronavirus Is No Ebola, and That Presents A Different Problem. Bloomberg News Jan. 29, 2020.
27 Altman H. Pentagon Prepared to House Nearly 1,000 People Over Coronavirus Fears. Military Times Feb. 1, 2020.
28 Reuters. U.S. confirms its eighth case of coronavirus; Pentagon to provide quarantine housing. Feb. 2, 2020.
29 U.S. Department of Defense. DOD Statement on Additional Request From HHS. Feb. 6, 2020.
30 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM): Control of Communicable Diseases. Federal Register Aug. 15, 2016.
31 CDC. History of Quarantine. Jan. 10, 2012.
32 CNN Wire. Everything you need to know about coronavirus this week in the U.S. Feb. 7, 2020.
33 Executive Office of the President. Executive Order 13295, Apr. 4, 2003. Federal Register Apr. 9, 2003.
34 Executive Office of the President. Executive Order 13375, Apr. 1, 2005. Federal Register Apr. 5, 2005.
35 Executive Office of the President. Executive Order 13674, July 31, 2014. Federal Register Aug. 6, 2014.