Parking lots, coughing and the pandemic

Bureaucracies tend to hide their mistakes, especially in authoritarian countries

A couple wearing face masks are seen near a hospital parking lot after the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan.
A couple wearing face masks are seen near a hospital parking lot after the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan.ALY SONG / Reuters

What do cars in a parking lot have to do with online searches for terms like “diarrhea” and “cough”? And what do these data points tell us about the pandemic that is raging across the globe? As it turns out, a great deal.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have used satellite imagery to track the number of cars parked at six major hospitals in Wuhan, the city of 11 million inhabitants in central China where Covid-19 originated and then spread to the rest of the world.

The Harvard scientists tracked the parking lot photos from January 2018 to April 2020. By analyzing the images, the researchers discovered an unusual increase in the number of cars parked between August and December 2019. In those months, the number of cars was above average and also higher than during flu outbreaks. But that is not all. In China, Google is blocked. The go-to search engine is called Baidu. In September and October, Baidu searches for the terms “cough,” “diarrhea” and “breathing problems” originating from Wuhan skyrocketed.

The researchers came to a shocking conclusion: “Increased hospital traffic and symptom search data in Wuhan preceded the documented start of the pandemic in December 2019.”

The conclusion is explosive because, according to the data, the outbreak began months before the Chinese government told the world what was happening, which wasted time other governments needed to prepare for the onset of pandemic. Not surprisingly, Beijing has denied this and questions the study’s validity.

The authors acknowledge the limitations of their methodology and of the data they used. However, despite these limitations, it is obvious that the research provides a useful perspective. And not just about the pandemic.

The Chernobyl effect. Bureaucracies tend to hide their mistakes and authoritarian bureaucracies even more so. Take the Soviet reaction to the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986. The disaster scattered radioactive material across the Soviet Union, parts of Europe, and even reached Canada. Everything indicates that the “Chernobyl effect” – the desperate scramble to conceal the problem in fear of political blowback – shaped the Chinese government’s response when it was clear that what was happening in Wuhan was serious, massive and unprecedented.

The truth finds a way to come out. As hard as they tried, Soviet leaders couldn’t prevent the world from learning about Chernobyl. The same is true of China. First, there was a deliberate delay by the local government in Wuhan and then by the authorities in Beijing in acknowledging the magnitude of what was happening. It has always been difficult for governments to hide their secrets. Sooner or later the truth gets out. Today secrets are exposed faster than ever. Even the secrets of dictatorships.

Everything can be measured. Who would have thought that counting the cars in a parking lot could reveal an incipient pandemic? Or that a spike in internet searches for certain words might forecast an epidemic? In these times, the mere fact that we exist as individuals generates a mountain of data that can be captured and processed – whether we like it or not. Mobile phones, cameras, computers, sensors and platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Flickr are ceaselessly collecting data about our behavior and transforming it into information that can be used – for good or bad.

Everything is politicized. The Harvard study comes at a time of extreme tension between the United States and China. Trade, technology, finance, military superiority and geopolitical influence are just some of the arenas in which the two superpowers are facing off. Another important arena is international prestige. After the initial delay in recognizing and communicating the extent of the pandemic, Beijing has launched a broad propaganda campaign. It is emphasizing its success in containing the pandemic and contrasts it with the chaos-prone White House response. For its part, the United States government has launched a broad smear campaign against China, emphasizing the opacity of its approach and pinning responsibility for the crisis on Beijing. Attacks on China will certainly be a central theme of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. China will undoubtedly respond.

In a world without secrets, conflicts can be managed, but not suppressed.

@moisesnaim

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