Experts Examine the Coronavirus—and an Unsettling Response by the Chinese Government

The coronavirus is quickly becoming a worldwide pandemic, and the Chinese government is rejecting the resources to stop it.

Those were among the alarming takeaways from a Schar School panel discussion that drew some 55 audience members to George Mason University’s Arlington Campus on Friday, February 21. The late afternoon discussion, “The Coronavirus and Its International Ramifications,” was hosted by the Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies and moderated by the center’s director, Ellen Laipson.

While the lively discussion was even-tempered, the information imparted about the global health crisis was often staggering. No less than a longtime veteran of international health emergencies—including investigating Japan’s nuclear reactor crisis—is alarmed.

“This is an astonishing outbreak,” said senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Stephen Morrison, director of the center’s Global Health Policy Center. “What we think we know today could change tomorrow.”

As of the time of the talk there were over 76,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus with 2,250 deaths globally. However, the panelists discussed how these numbers are actually much higher.

“We really don’t know the total number of confirmed cases or deaths,” said Ashley Grant, a biotechnologist at the MITRE Corporation and Schar School adjunct professor in the Biodefense program. “It’s really important to have epidemiologists on the ground studying who is susceptible to this illness and what the risk factors are. There are a lot of people who the Chinese have not done diagnostic testing on because the testing capacity is low—and only the sickest are being focused on.”

For Schar School assistant professor of International Security Ketian Zhang, the fast-moving crisis is personal: She caught the last flight out of China to the Washington area before severe travel restrictions were announced. Before her departure she was quarantined at her home outside of Beijing for more than 10 days.

“Streets that were normally filled with people and vibrant colors were empty,” she said. “The Chinese public is very angry with the central government and [Chinese president] Xi Jinping. Xi has somewhat lost legitimacy, and the people are losing faith in the government.”

“Keep in mind, the government suppressed action on this outbreak for six to seven weeks,” said Morrison. “If China had practiced greater transparency, we might not be seeing an outbreak of this magnitude.”

The coronavirus crisis comes against a backdrop of a slowing economy, which is worsening in the face of the health crisis, and an aging population in China. “China’s response reveals the vulnerabilities of Xi and authoritarian governments,” said Morrison.

For some in the audience, the panel discussion illuminated the need for more cooperation among nations.

“While China continues to grow as a major competitor, if there is limited transparency, there is very little we can do,” said International Security student Voké Kalegha. “However, discussions like this are an important start to figuring out how U.S. global health and national security policy can adapt to new crises.”