Who was Covid-19’s Patient Zero, defined as the first carrier of a communicable disease in an outbreak of related cases?
Since the disease at least officially originated in China, and which scenario China has not unequivocally admitted to but has not spiritedly refuted anyway, Patient Zero ought to be a Wuhan-based Chinese.
What Beijing has readily told the world is of Covid-19’s first fatality, a 61-year-old going by the name Zhen, in all probability a non de plume. Zhen is said to have contracted Covid-19 during one of his routine visits to the Wuhan Seafood Wholesale Market.
He died at Wuhan Puren Hospital on the night of January 10, 2020, at a time when 41 people had been diagnosed with the disease and at least seven were in critical condition according to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission.
Zhen, however, was not Patient Zero. According to the January 24, 2020 edition of The Lancet, the world’s leading medical journal, Patient Zero had no connection whatsoever with the now infamous seafood market.
The Lancet report was informed by a team of researchers, seven of whom worked at Wuhan’s Jinyintan hospital, which was the first hospital to be designated for patients with Covid-19. The researchers analysed data from the 41 patients with confirmed infections and who had showed an onset of symptoms up to January 2.
They stressed that Patient Zero had never been to the seafood market and that “there was also no epidemiological link between the first patient and the later cases”.
Sadly (or was it decorously?), The Lancet provided no hint as to who the real Patient Zero was. It was not until three months later that her name was put out into the global public domain although she had long been named in maverick Beijing newspapers.
PATIENT ZERO WAS A LADY KNOW AS HUANG
Ever heard of the so-called Five Eyes? It is the world’s oldest intelligence partnership which came into being in 1946, its membership comprising of the major Anglophone countries, namely the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
In a Five Eyes memo passed to Australia’s The Daily Telegraph towards the end of April this year, Patient Zero was confirmed as Huang Yan Ling, a scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and who was believed to have succumbed to the effects of Covid-19.
She is said to have contracted the disease “during a botched experiment” in the institute’s P4 laboratory. The memo was a summary of a more detailed 15-page dossier.
The name Huang Yan Ling first popped up in Beijing newspapers in January and shortly thereafter went viral in China’s blogosphere. Huang was a female graduate from Jiantong University and enrolled for a Master’s programme at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2012, which she completed in 2015.
At first, the institute denied she ever schooled or worked there and even went to the extent of removing all her particulars from the institutional website. They subsequently owned up to her association with them but insisted she was still alive and kicking. They have lately made a unabashed U-turn, saying she’s now unaccounted for.
Certainly, if Huang was still in good health to date, the government would have forced her to emerge and make a public statement live on television. The fact that they have not done so demonstrates quite clearly that she is indeed deceased.
CHINA’S DUCKING AND DIVING
The Five Eyes report pans China for obfuscating whistleblower reports, censoring Internet reports in a cover-up, and withholding important scientific information – including virus samples – to help other countries treat the disease in the early stages of what would eventually become the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Lancet endorses this view too: it informs us that the symptoms of Covid-19 were first made known to the Wuhan authorities on December 1, but they were reluctant to own up to the existence of the disease till December 31st, when they announced that 27 people were down with a pneumonia-like ailment.
On its part, the central government in Beijing suppressed information on Covid-19 for six weeks spanning December and January and only officially acknowledged it on January 20. Even then, the acknowledgement was far from wholehearted. The authorities continued to gag doctors and others for raising red flags and were unstinting in playing down the dangers to the public of the otherwise deadly disease.
For instance, when Professor Zhang Yongzhen’s Shanghai laboratory published Covid-19’s genomic sequence on January 11 to allow the scientists around the world to study the virus, the following day the laboratory was shut down for what was spun as “rectification” – whatever that meant.
And when on January 26 a group of 9 “experts” arrived in Wuhan to review the criteria for disseminating information about the virus to the global population, they were deputised by the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda Tsar, whose brief, clearly, was to sanitise the information and slant the narrative to Xi Jinping’s liking.
LI AND OTHERS SOUND THE ALARM
Arguably the earliest tipsters to go public about the existence of Covid-19 in China were Lu Xiaohong, Hie Linka, and Li Wenliang, all medical doctors.
Lu, the director of gastroenterology at Wuhan Municipal Hospital, on Christmas Day told the state-run China Youth Daily that a number of medical workers at two hospitals in Wuhan had presented with a mysterious pneumonia-like illness. Lu privately sent word to a school located near another major market about her concerns.
On December 30, Hie, an oncologist at Wuhan Union Hospital, and Li, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central University, set about alerting the public on WeChat, the ubiquitous social media platform of China, about the same come-from-nowhere disease.
Hie enjoined people to “wear masks and ventilate areas” after learning from her colleagues in the hospital’s respiratory unit that many patients, all of whom had recently been to the same seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, had been admitted there with pneumonia-like symptoms whose cause was as yet unknown.
But it was Li’s situation that ended in tragedy and therefore became the most topical across the globe. Targeting about 150 of his fellow students in a closed WeChat group, Li notified them about seven patients who had visited the Wuhan Seafood Wholesale Market and were quarantined in his hospital after showing SARS-like symptoms.
He would later tell The New York Times that, “we needed to be ready for it mentally; take protective measures” and CNN that, “I only wanted to remind my university classmates to be careful”.
R.I.P. DR LI
The screenshots of Li’s postings, which were under his real name, inevitably went viral and the outcome was exactly as had predicted. “I realised it was out of my control and I would probably be punished,” he would later harp back.
However, it was not until two days after his WeChat comments that the Public Safety Bureau of Wuhan, a branch of the national police, pounced. Li was one of the people rounded up in the dead of night in a swoop on eight medical staff, who included Hie, for “spreading rumours online that disturbed the public order”. He was made to sign a statement acknowledging guilt of a misdemeanour which constituted illegal behaviour.
But the iron-willed, heart-of-oak Li simply wasn’t giving up. Although the police deleted all his WeChat posts and even closed his account, he resorted to uploading remonstrative videos on his blog straight after his release.
Li’s days nonetheless were numbered. Officially, he contracted Covid-19 from a woman suffering from glaucoma that he treated on January 10. He passed away on February 7. The probability that he was tactfully eliminated by the country’s intelligence apparatus cannot be entirely discounted given China’s penchant to harshly crack the whip on perceived dissidents. He was 34 years old and was survived by a son and a pregnant wife.
Li’s highly suspicious death sparked outrage throughout China, prompting the National Supervisory Commission, the country’s highest anti-corruption agency, to declare that they would conduct investigations into his demise. There has never been a word from them on the matter four months hence.
HE CASE OF AI FEN
In March this year, the Xi Jinping regime was at it again. One Ai Fen, the head of the emergency department at Wuhan Central hospital, simply went out of circulation, which is odd for a medical doctor working for a government-owned hospital.
Apparently, Ai’s sin was to criticise government for heavy-handed censorship of the Covid-19 outbreak in the country thereby delaying the adoption of measures to combat it and stem its spread in an interview with a popular magazine.
Ai was one of the eight doctors alluded to above who were the first to blow the trumpet on the emergence of the disease.
The Chinese authorities moved rather swiftly to muzzle the interview. The issue containing the interview, published on March 10, was quickly removed from newsstands. The interview was also deleted from the magazine’s website but was previously copied by Internet users who continued to circulate it.
Maybe Huang’s death was natural, but I’m willing to bet you my very last penny that Li’s and Ai’s were blatant eliminations by a near-Stalinist regime that scarcely tolerates going against the grain.
This is a question that should seriously exercise the mind of every Botswana citizen and every science researcher, every health worker and every political leader political.
The Covid-19 currently defines our lives and poses a direct threat to every aspect and every part of national safety, security and general well-being. This disease has become a normative part of human life throughout the world.
The first part of the struggle against the murderous depredation of this disease was to protect personal life through restrictive health injunctions and protocols; the worst possibly being human isolation and masks that hid our sorrows and lamentations through thin veils. We suffered that humiliation with grace and I believe as a nation we did a great job.
Now the vaccines are here, ushering us into the second phase of this war against the plague; and we are asking ourselves, is this science-driven fight against Covid-19 spell the end of pandemic anxiety? Is the health nightmare coming to an end? What happy lives lie ahead? Is this the time for celebration or caution? As the Non State Actors, we have being struggling with these questions for months.
We have published our thoughts and feelings, and our research reviews and thorough reading of both the local and international impacts of this rampaging viral invasion in local newspapers and social media platforms.
More significantly, we have successfully organised workshops about the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy and the last workshop invited a panel of health experts, professionals, and public administers to advance this social dialogue as part of our commitment to the tripartite engagement we enjoy working with Government of Botswana, Civil Society and Development partners. These workshops are virtual and open to all Batswana, foreign diplomatic missions based in Gaborone, UN agencies located in Gaborone and international academic researchers and professional health experts and specialists.
The mark of Covid-19 on our nation is a painful one, a tragedy shared by the entire human race, but still a contextually painful experience. Our response is fraught with grave difficulties; limited resources, limited time, and the urgency to not only save lives but also avert economic ruin and a bleak future for all who survive. Several vaccines are already in the market.
Parts of the world are already doing the best they can to trunk the pestilential march of this disease by rolling out mass-vaccinations campaigns that promise to evict this health menace and nightmare from their public lives. Botswana, like much of Africa, is still up in the disreputable, and, unenviable, preventative social melee of masked interactions, metered distances, contactless commerce.
We remain very much at the mercy of a marauding virus that daily runs amuck with earth shattering implications for the economy and human lives. And the battle against both infections and transmissions is proving to be difficult, in terms of finance, institutional capacities and resource mobilization. How are we prepared as government, and as citizens, to embrace the impending mass-vaccinations? What are the chances of us succeeding at this last-ditch effort to defeat the virus? What are the most pressing obstacles?
Does the work of vaccines spell an end to the pandemic anxieties?
Our panellists addressed the current state of mass-vaccination preparedness at the Botswana national level. What resources are available? What are the financial, institutional and administrative operational challenges (costs and supply chains, delivery, distribution, administering the vaccine on time, surveillance and security of vaccines?) What is being done to overcome them, or what can be done to overcome them? What do public assessments of preparedness tell us at the local community levels? How strong is the political will and direction? How long can we expect the whole exercise to last? At what point should we start seeing tangible results of the mass-vaccination campaign?
They also addressed the challenges of the anticipated emerging Vaccinated Society. How to fight the myths of vaccines and the superstitions about histories of human immunizations? What exactly is being done to grow robust local confidence in the science of vaccinations and the vaccines themselves? More significantly, how to square these campaigns vis-vis personal rights, moral/religious obligations?
What messages are being sent out in these regards and how are Batswana responding? What about issues of justice and equality? Will we get the necessary vaccines to everyone who wants them? What is being done to ensure no deserving person is left behind?
They also addressed issues of health data. To accomplish this mass-vaccination campaign and do everything right we need accurate and complete data. Poor data already makes it very hard to just cope with the disease. What is being done to improve data for the mass-vaccination campaign? How is this data being collected, aggregated and prepared for real life situation/applications throughout Botswana in the coming campaign?
We know in America, for example, general reporting and treatment of health data at the beginning of vaccinations was so poor, so chaotic and so scattered mainstream newspapers like The Atlantic, Washington Post and the New York Times had to step in, working very closely with civil society organizations, to rescue the situation. What data-related issues are still problematic in Botswana?
To be specific, what kind of Covid-19 data is being taken now to ready the whole country for an effective and efficient mass-vaccination program?
Batswana must be made aware that the end part of vaccination will just mark the beginning of a long journey to health recovery and national redemption; that in many ways Covid-19 vaccination is just another step toward the many efforts in abeyance to fight this health pandemic, the road ahead is still long and painful.
For this purpose, and to highlight the significance of this observation we tasked our panellists with the arduous imperative of analysing the impact of mass-vaccination on society and the economy alongside the pressing issues of post-Covid-19 national health surveillance and rehabilitation programs.
Research suggests the aftermath of Covid-19 vaccination is going to be just as difficult and uncertain world as the present reality in many ways, and that caution should prevail over celebration, at least for a long time. The disease itself is projected to linger around for some time after all these mass-vaccination campaigns unless an effort is made to vaccinate everyone to the last reported case, every nation succeeds beyond herd immunity, and cure is found for Covid-19 disease. Many people are going to continue in need of medications, psychological and psychiatric services and therapy.
Is Botswana ready for this long holdout? If not, what path should we take going into the future? The Second concern is , are we going to have a single, trusted national agency charged with the mandate to set standards for our national health data system, now that we know how real bad pandemics can be, and the value of data in quickly responding to them and mitigating impact? Finally, what is being done to curate a short history of this pandemic? A national museum of health and medicine or a Public Health Institute in Botswana is overdue.
If we are to create strong sets of data policies and data quality standards for fighting future health pandemics it is critical that they find ideological and moral foundations in the artistic imagery and photography of the present human experience…context is essential to fighting such diseases, and to be prepared we must learn from every tragic health incident.
Our panellists answered most of these questions with distinguished intellectual clarity. We wish Batswana to join us in our second Mass-vaccination workshop.
Today is International Women’s Day – it’s a moment to think about how much better our news diet could be if inequities were eliminated. In 1995, when the curtains fell in one of the largest meetings that have ever brought women together to discuss women in development, it was noted that women and media remain key to development.
Twenty-six years later, the relevant “Article J” of the Beijing Platform for Action, remains unfulfilled. Its two strategic objectives with regard to Women and Media have not been met. They are Increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication
Promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.
Today, as we mark International Women’s Day, it’s an indictment on both media owners and civil society that women remain on the periphery of news-making. They cannot claim equal space in either the structures of newsrooms or in the content produced, be that as sources of news or as the subjects of reports. Indeed, the latest figures from WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Programme show just one in five voices in news belong to women*, be they as sources, as the author or as the main character of the news report.
Some progress was evident several years back, with stand-out women being named as chief executive officers, editors in chief, managing editors and executive editors. But these gains appear short lived in most media organisations. Excitement has turned to frustration as one-step forward has been replaced with three steps backwards. In Africa, the problem is acute. The decision-making tables of media organisations remain deprived of women and where there are women, they are surrounded by men.
Few women have followed in the footsteps of Esther Kamweru, the first woman managing editor in Kenya, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s standout women editors include Pamela Makotsi-Sittoni (Nation Media Group, Kenya), Barbara Kaija (New Vision, Uganda), Mary Mbewe (Daily Nation, Zambia), Margaret Vuchiri (The Monitor, Uganda), Joyce Shebe (Clouds, Tanzania), Tryphinah Dongwana (Weekend Post, Botswana), Joyce Mhaville (Independent Television -ITV, Tanzania) and Tuma Abdallah (Standard Newspapers,Tanzania). But they remain an exception.
The lack of balance between women and men at the table of decision making has a rollback effect on the content that is produced. A table dominated by men typically makes decisions that benefit men.
So today, International Women’s Day is a grim reminder that things are not rosy in the news business. Achieving gender balance in news and in the structure of media organisations remains a challenge. Unmet, it sees more than half of the population in our countries suffer the consequences of bias, discrimination and sexism.
The business of ignoring the other half of the population can no longer be treated as normal. It’s time that media leaders grasp the challenge, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it also makes a whole lot of business sense: start covering women, give them space and a voice in news-making and propel them to all levels of decision making within your organisation.
We can no longer afford to imagine that it’s only men who make and sell the news and bring in the shillings to fund the media business. Women too are worthy newsmakers. In all of our societies, there are women holding decision making positions and who are now experts in once male-only domains such as engineers, doctors, scientists and researchers.
They can be deliberately picked out to share their perspectives and expertise and bring balance to the profile of experts quoted on our news pages. Media is the prism through which society sees itself and women are an untapped audience. So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us embrace diversity, which yields better news content and business products, and in so doing eliminate sexism. We know that actions and attitudes that discriminate against people based on their gender is bad for business.
As media, the challenge is ours. We need to consciously embrace and reach the commitments made 26 years ago when the Beijing Platform for Action was signed globally. As the news consuming public, you have a role to play too. Hold your news organization to account and make sure they deliver balanced news that reflects the voices of all of society.
Jane Godia is a gender development and media expert who serves as the Africa Director of Women in News programme. WOMEN IN NEWS is WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org
The eve of International Women’s Day presents an opportunity for us to think about gender equality and the long and often frustrating march toward societies that are truly equal.
As media, we are uniquely placed to drive forward this reflection and discussion. But while focusing on the challenges of gender in society, we owe it to our staff and the communities we serve to also take a hard look at the obstacles within our own organisations.
I’m talking specifically about the scourge of sexual harassment. It’s likely to have happened in your newsroom. It has likely happened to a member of your team. It happens to all genders but is disproportionately directed at women. It happens in every industry, regardless of country, culture or context. This is because sexual harassment is driven by power, not sex. Wherever you have imbalances in power, you have individuals who are at risk of sexual harassment, and those who abuse this power.
I’ve been sexually harassed. The many journalists and editors, friends and family members who I have spoken to over the years on this subject have also been harassed. Yet it is still hard for leaders to recognize that this could be happening within their newsrooms and boardrooms. Why does it continue to be such a taboo?
Counting the cost of sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is, simply put, bad for business. It can harm your corporate reputation. It is a drain on the productivity of staff and managers. Maintaining and building trust in your brand is an absolute imperative for media organisations globally. If and when a case gets out of control or is badly handled – this can directly impact your bottom line.
It is for this reason that WAN-IFRA Women in News has put eliminating sexual harassment as a top priority in our work around gender equality in the media sector. This might seem at odds with the current climate where social interactions are fewer and remote work scenarios are in place in many newsrooms and businesses. But one only needs to tune into the news to know that the abuse of power, manifested as verbal, physical or online harassment, is alive and well.
Preliminary results from an ongoing Women in News research study into the issue of sexual harassment polling hundreds of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia indicate that more than 1 in 3 women media professionals have been physically harassed, and just under 50% have been verbally harassed. Just over 15% of men in African newsrooms reported being physically harassed, and slightly less than 1 in 4 reports being verbally harassed. The numbers for male media professionals in Southeast Asia are slightly higher than a quarter on both forms of harassment.
The first step in confronting sexual harassment is to talk about it. We need to strip away the stigma and discomfort around having open conversations about what sexual harassment is and isn’t. Media managers, it is entirely in your power to create dynamics in your own teams that are free from sexual harassment.
Publishers and CEOs, you set the organisational culture in your media company.
By being vocal in recognising that it happens everywhere, and communicating to your employees that you will not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind, you send a powerful message to your teams, and publicly. With these actions, you will help us overcome the legacy of silence around this topic, and in doing so take an important first step to create media environments that truly embrace equality.
Melanie Walker is Executive Director of Media Development of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). She is a creator of Women in News, WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org