Asia's coronavirus epidemic hit the Lunar New Year exodus of Hong Kong families to ancestral villages in Guangdong across the border. The epicenter of the outbreak, in Wuhan, the sprawling capital of China's Hubei Province, is locked down along with surrounding cities by military deployment, affecting 50 million residents.

So far 106 deaths have been declared, with 4,515 cases reported. Chinese medical authorities warn that the contagion is more virulent than the notorious SARS epidemic of 2003, which took the lives of 775 people, 648 of whom were in China and Hong Kong. SARS had a two to seven-day gestation before symptoms were visible. The new 2019-nCoV virus may take up to 14 days to show.

Mayor Zhou Xianwang of Wuhan has acknowledged that up to 5 million residents may already have left the city. He volunteered on CCTV "to take responsibility," along with party secretary Ma Guoqiang, "to appease public outrage." He said rigid rules to report up the hierarchy had stopped him from flagging the alarm sooner.

That is a public indictment of the Communist Party policy of total information control and censorship in any crisis. The Wuhan mayor and party secretary may well be made the scapegoats in this opaque system of governance without transparency or accountability. Pinning blame is a regular ploy for the system to survive.

Central casting in charge

Chinese leader Xi Jinping raised crisis management to the State Council level. Premier Li Keqiang airdropped into Wuhan wearing a facemask on January 27 to oversee containment. He visited a hospital to pledge 20,000 facemasks in a city that had run out of masks and hand disinfectant. He visited a supermarket, leading an upbeat chorus of the workers, which was slapped online by citizens as an odd cure for the disease.

The central government released 14,000 protective suits, 110,000 pairs of gloves and 3 million masks from its medical reserves. In addition, 1,600 medical personnel were seconded to Hubei province to assist overstretched local staff. Wuhan is constructing a 1,000-bed hospital to treat coronavirus cases. A preliminary US$145 million has been allocated by the central government to help Hubei province cope.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Ma Xiaowei warned that some virus carriers may not exhibit symptoms. How will countries screen at entry points for the coronavirus? This is escalating to a pandemic that needs urgent international cooperation.

Information crawl

Therein lies a stark reminder of what "One Country, Two Systems" holds for Hong Kong residents. While Hong Kong promptly shares medical data with the World Health Organization (WHO) for centralized, international monitoring of the epidemic - allowing medical scientists globally to collaborate on containment and remedy - such rapid sharing of critical data seems to lag in China.

Hong Kong retains its pre-handover direct relationship with WHO as a 'Special Administrative Region' (SAR). Will that be lost after 2047 too? The two systems have entirely different philosophies about reliable health data being made public promptly and to share with the WHO as a governance discipline. Hong Kong trusts its medical authorities and civil servants to do the right thing without hesitation.

The US, Japan, Germany and other concerned nations are waiting for approval and access into China for their health teams to directly observe and learn about this new virus and its transmission patterns, from Chinese colleagues. This sharing and access are needed now, not later.

Virology Institute alerted wildlife risk

The mainland's China Daily newspaper reports that the Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences warned in 2018 that the virus that caused SARS in 2003 was not a freak incident. Similar viruses, said the Institute, are active and will remain a threat due to the unregulated traffic in wild animals at the Wuhan market.

Preliminary research identified that the 'chrysanthemum head' bat transmitted the virus to wildlife, where it mutates before infecting humans. Local authorities have not moved to end the wildlife sales in the market. It is a cultural mindset and belief in the virility-boosting properties of rare animal parts, which has no scientific value, that needs to be forcibly ended.

The paper notes that 70 percent of the new infectious diseases around the world in the past decade originated from wildlife: bird flu, Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Until there is concerted international action to shut down the illegal wildlife trade, humanity will continue to be exposed to the mutating coronavirus family of plagues.

Climate change aggravated by fossil fuels, plastic waste dumped into the oceans and the wildlife trade for exotic animal parts are matrices of ethical negligence which ultimately boomerang to kill humans. Governments are the only authority that can stop this collective generational suicide across the planet. We are long overdue for international enforcement to halt these abuses. Global leadership is absent.

No leader to pick fortune sticks

The Hong Kong government cancelled the harbor fireworks. Civil servants are instructed to work from home. Hong Kong society is staying indoors to dodge the coronavirus. Neither Carrie Lam nor her chief secretary pitched up to rattle the chim-sticks at the Che Kung Temple in Shatin to foretell the territory's fortune.

The virus is a more powerful block on the street protests than riot police, teargas, and water-cannon trucks. The traditional noisy gatherings for family lunches and dinners at restaurants are not happening, which also deprives staff of the obligatory 'lai see' lucky money distribution.

This is not at all an auspicious start of the Year of the Rat for Hong Kong. The general gloom is palpable. It is an altogether downbeat atmosphere that prevails for the worst Lunar New Year in the city's recent history.

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