The coronavirus outbreak that has killed almost 1,400 people has left China facing a crisis on the scale of Chernobyl, according to a political scientist from the U.S..
The virus—which was this week named COVID-19—has killed 1,367 people in mainland China in 59,822 cases. Most deaths have been concentrated in the province of Hubei, where the infection first came to the attention of health authorities after it sickened workers at a wholesale seafood market late last year.
Japan became the third country or territory outside of mainland China to confirm a fatality, joining the Philippines and Hong Kong. Globally, 60,349 cases have been confirmed over 25 countries and territories, including the U.S., as show in the infographic by Statista below.
On Wednesday, China had its deadliest day of the new coronavirus outbreak, which led the city of Shiyan to adopt “wartime measures” which include banning residents from leaving their homes. The city of Wuhan is meanwhile still effectively in lockdown as the authorities attempt to control the virus from spreading.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post newspaper, Professor Dali Yang, a political scientist at University of Chicago, predicted the outbreak would cause devastation similar to that left in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in Ukraine.
Dozens died after a nuclear reactor exploded, and millions in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were affected. The World Health Organization states, the disaster “had a substantial impact on the entire humankind by changing the nations attitudes to nuclear safety on a global scale.”
Yang said the COVID-19 outbreak “will be a crisis of Chernobyl proportions, especially because we will have to contend with the virus for years to come. Those who have sustained losses, in particular, will be asking questions, as has happened before in the aftermath of a crisis.”
Referring to Chinese president Xi Jinping, he went on: “Failure…will be blamed on the system and especially on Xi, who’s staked out his personal leadership role.”
Xi, who has met WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus over COVID-19, has not been visible amid the crisis, and is not on the country’s coronavirus task force, according to SCMP.
The WHO, which has declared the situation a public health emergency of international concern, has praised China for its response to the outbreak and its transparency, particularly after its secrecy surrounding the 2003 SARS epidemic.
However, the authorities in the city of Wuhan, Hubei where the infection is thought to have emerged, have been criticized for initially downplaying the outbreak. The city’s mayor city Mayor Zhou Xianwang has admitted that information on the infection when it first appeared wasn’t shared in a “timely” manner.
Last week, the death of a Chinese doctor who was punished for warning of the virus died of COVID-19 prompted outrage in the country. Li Wenliang, who wrote of the rise of a mysterious new illness on the popular WeChat messaging app, was reprimanded by police for spreading rumours online after the post was widely shared.
According to The Guardian, his passing was met with grief, anger, and calls for freedom of speech among ordinary people in China. In an apparent attempt to prevent unrest, the authorities appeared to delete messages on WeChat which called on people to take to the streets in Li’s memory.
Parallels were also made with the Chernobyl disaster following his passing. In a WeChat message posted in Li’s memory according to Quartz, a user quoted HBO’s fictional version of Valery Legasov, the scientist who led the investigation into the disaster.
“What is the cost of lies?” the post read. “In these stories, it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is: ‘Who is to blame?'”
Similarly last month, The Washington Postreported people had left reviews for HBO’s Chernobyl on the Chinese version of the content review site IMDB. Censors later cracked down on the page.
“Many linked the official ineptitude in present-day China and the Soviet Union’s final years and hinted that the Wuhan virus was something of a Chernobyl moment,” Gerry Shih wrote at the time.