It’s a familiar and ominous story. A deadly pathogen with no known cure begins spreading in China. Rather than acknowledge the problem, officials throughout the Chinese government shut down media coverage, while under-reporting infection and mortality rates for fear of career and political repercussions. Just as the true scale of the epidemic emerges, Chinese officials declare victory.
In 2002 and 2003, that was roughly the course of the deadly, incurable SARS pandemic that emerged in southern China and disrupted global travel, commerce and health. In 2018 and 2019, it’s an accurate description of how China has mismanaged an epidemic of African swine fever that’s on course to kill 130 million pigs — or roughly one-third of China’s herd, the biggest in the world.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Post-SARS, China supposedly reformed its system so that secrecy, careerism and concerns over China’s international image wouldn’t again take precedence over public health. Thankfully African swine fever only affects pigs. But the epidemic highlights how hard old habits die, and how systemically unprepared China is to report and manage the inevitable next epidemic that kills people.