Originally published on 5 February 2020.
Important lessons from the spread of the Wuhan Coronavirus
News continues to break about the spread of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus. Earlier today, Wednesday, it emerged that at least 10 people on the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama, Japan, have tested positive for the disease. This outbreak is believed to be linked to a passenger who left the ship at a previous port on the journey, Hong Kong, and who was subsequently found to be ill with the virus. Worryingly, the passenger in question had left the cruise ship on 25th January. Only on Monday this week were tests commenced on the remaining passengers and crew members.
It’s too early to tell whether the people who die from 2019-nCoV worldwide will eventually be measured in the hundreds, thousands, or perhaps even millions. Matters may depend on whether the virus mutates. However, what can already be said is that the spread of the disease could likely have been stopped much earlier if principles of openness and truthfulness had been followed by the authorities in the city, Wuhan, where the disease was first discovered. Instead, sadly, principles of convenience prevailed.
On the 30th of December, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, Li Wenliang, posted a message to a group of doctors drawing attention to what he believed could be the outbreak of a dangerous new disease. These doctors should wear protective clothing, Dr Li urged. Four days later, Li was brought before the local Public Security Bureau. But rather than asking for more information about the disease, the authorities scolded the doctor, accusing him of spreading rumours, making “false comments”, and “severely disturbing the social order”. Li was forced to sign his acknowledgement of a stern admonition: “We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice”.
Sometimes the public order needs to be “disturbed”
The actions of the Public Security Bureau in Wuhan are just one example of a trait that is common all over the world: governments like to keep control of information that runs counter to their current plans and thinking. Whistleblowers, contrary thinkers, investigative journalists, and opposition figures all pose threats to the smooth operation of government policies. Officials, given a free hand, would often prefer to silence all such perceived troublemakers. The growing danger is if governments deploy new technological systems to distort and control the public discourse. In such a case, with the decline of an active, independent press and well-informed public discussions, democracy risks perishing.
As a foretaste of what the future might bring, the Conservative government in the UK recently banned its ministers from appearing on BBC Radio Four’s flagship “Today” morning programme. Boris Johnson even went to the extent of hiding in an industrial fridge freezer to avoid an interview on ITV’s “Good Morning Britain” show. And on Tuesday morning, journalists arriving at 10 Downing Street were divided into two groups – those who were to be blocked from attending a briefing by a senior civil servant, and others who were on the government’s approved list. To the credit of the journalists involved, the subsequent briefing was boycotted by journalists in both camps.
Journalists may have won this particular skirmish, but a mighty tussle lies ahead, between officials who wish to suppress or distract dissent, and those who wish to continue “to speak truth to power”.
In this context, Transhumanist UK reaffirms the principles of Evidence, Science, and Technology. As stated on the front page of the organisation’s website:
All policy we advocate will as far as possible be evidence-based rather than ideology-based. Open sharing of information is paramount.
Alexander Karran, member of the organisation’s National Executive, commented:
In a world where false information flies at the speed of light around online media, it’s more important than ever that politicians respect principles of truthfulness and openness. If politics becomes a game which is won by whoever tells the most pernicious lies, we’ll all lose out.
Transhumanist UK co-founder, David Wood, added:
It’s not just variant new biological viruses that should worry all of us; variant new mental viruses can cause global chaos too, as they spread misinformation and confusion. We need to increase our watchfulness about both types of virus, and to address the circumstances that encourage their spread.