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Rachel Lu

Chinese Authorities Seek to Ease Fears of Epidemic, But Social Media a Double-Edged Sword

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Almost exactly a decade since the outbreak of SARS, the epidemic originating in Guangdong that killed almost 800 people worldwide, China is again in the grips of fear of a super bug. The H7N9 strain of avian flu has jumped to humans and, as of April 2, killed at least three and sickened about a dozen people in Shanghai and three surrounding provinces.

The news is particularly unsettling, not only because it happened near the tenth anniversary of SARS, but also because it followed close on the heels of the revelation that thousands of swine carcasses were found in the Huangpu River, Shanghai’s main waterway. The government has offered no good explanation of the pigs’ cause of death, leaving many to speculate that the officials are concealing something truly dreadful. [Update: concerns online continue, despite the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) recently wrote it has found "no evidence of any connection" between the two phenomena.][Further update: that language has been deleted from the newest version of the page cited.]

After the outbreak of H7N9 around Shanghai was reported by Hong Kong’s Chinese language media on April 1, the Chinese government has shifted into crisis-management mode. This time around, the health officials are trying hard to give the impression that openness and transparency are the order of the day, and they are using social media to get its message out.

The state-owned media outlets released information about the patients, symptoms of the disease and treatment plans, as well as views from healthcare expert on China’s lively microblogs. But if more information is supposed to put people’s minds at ease, social media seems to be a double-edged sword.

H7N9 is the top trending topic on Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, China’s leading microblogging platforms. A search for “H7N9″ yielded more than 2.2 million recent posts on Sina Weibo. Many are openly voicing their fears that a larger outbreak is imminent and have construed the information release is a bad omen of things to come. @老榕 wrote, “This doesn’t feel right. Why are there already fatal cases after reporting began?”

The contagion of fear could contribute to a panic as people make connections between the avian flu and the swine deaths. @子萌_Ivy asked on Sina Weibo, “Why is it happening around Shanghai? Does the epidemic have anything to do with water quality?”

The state health commission emphasized that there is no evidence yet of the disease being transmitted between humans, but it probably will take more than a few press releases to calm millions of edgy people who live around Shanghai.

This outbreak presents the first major public health crisis for the new government under Xi Jinping, who will be eager to prove that he can handle the crisis better than his predecessors did ten years ago. A local paper in Zhejiang (@都市快报中国新闻部), where there are two confirmed cases, wrote from its official Weibo account,

A nation with no memory is a nation without hope. A government that does not reflect on the error of its ways is an unsuitable government. We hope we will not have to relive the SARS fiasco.

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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.