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Wuhan, Hubei province and the COVID-19

By Peter Bowden - posted Wednesday, 11 March 2020

I made several trips to Wuhan, spending many weeks there. The purpose was to implement an Australian aid funded environmental clean-up program. It was several years ago, so I have not brought back the virus with me. But I am not surprised that the virus started there.

There are two theories on how the virus started. One is that the virus is spread through poop. A second is that it started in the fish market in Wuhan. Many nasty bugs, including many serious respiratory infections, are shed in the stools of infected people. Other theories are that the virus is from eating bats and snakes, or that it came from a nearby government lab that studies dangerous viruses.

This opinion piece writer is not at all surprised at these speculations, is even prepared to accept both major theories as valid.


Wuhan is on the Yangtze River, which must be the most polluted of all polluted rivers. The Yangtze is China's largest and the world's third-longest river. It supports over 400 million people and is perhaps the world's dirtiest river. Factory after factory spews its rubbish into the river. The air is not much better. Smokestacks without filters pump muck into the air so constantly that a blue haze is the normal outlook even on the clearest of days Coal burning in Chinese homes is a major offender, Hence the environmental clean-up project.

Toilet habits in Chinese dwellings leave much to be desired. I well remember a trip to a neighbouring town, Yi Chang as I recall, also in Hubei Province, where we stopped for lunch. The call of nature took me to the toilet, an open cesspit next to the kitchen. Nowhere to wash your hands, visible from the kitchen, even if it was a squat job. Simply revolting.

I will be forgiven, I hope, for believing that it was similar latrines at the fish market where the virus started. Wuhan is unlikely to be any more unhygienic than the other cities of China. Although located on a particularly dirty river, it seems only by chance that it arose there, and not in some other part of China.

We worked through the environmental agency of Hubei Province, with the city administration of Wuhan. There were many delightful and warm people that we worked with, remembered with affection. As in offices everywhere, there were arguments and differences, sufficient to state that the adjective often used to describe the Chinese, inscrutable, is a misnomer. I hope that none of them have succumbed to this virus.

Those of us on the environmental project did our best, but we were dealing with a city management system that came out of the previous dynasty. Or at least was massively subservient to the Chinese Communist Party. All senior administrators in the city are members of the party. The New York Times tells us that mayor of Hubei, the province at the centre of the outbreak, has been fired, now replaced by the mayor of Shanghai, who rose through the political ranks in the same province as Xi Jinping, China's top leader.

Management practices are dictated by the Party. Success, and a rise through the ranks, are decided by a commitment to the party. Not by the normal methods used in the West of demonstrating increasing managerial capacity. This explains the otherwise inexplicable agreement of the politburo to extending XI Jinping's premiership for life. China's president previously had a limited two terms in office .


There is a second lesson here, for we see a related problem in Australia. And in the United States. Commitment to the party. It is seen as necessary to gain the highest offices in the land. In the US this commitment has resulted in the Republican majority in the Senate finding in Donald Trump not guilty in his impeachment trial. It seems to be immaterial on whether he was guilty or not of high crimes and misdemeanours. Only one Republican, Mitt Romney, voted for impeachment. Australia has a similar problem. If you are a member of one party – the conservative Liberal Party, you are for coal, its mining, and its associated jobs. It you are in the other parties – Labor or the Greens, you have a policy of stopping the mining and export of coal. It raises the question, here, the United States, and China: Our political and social beliefs are many. How does the government of the day decide which of the many economic or social alternatives is the best for the country? At the moment, the decision is taken by the party that has the largest majority. It is not decided on what is the best answer, or even on what reflects the opinion of most of the populace. It creates a further problem for us voters - The party we vote for is decided on which one is least removed from our beliefs. Are political parties reaching their use-by date? Do we need some other system of voting for parliamentarians who may have differing beliefs, but who,above all, put their country first?

But to conclude: Xi is no Mao. A photo that constantly amazed us foreigners was Mao Zedong swimming in the Yangtze. Xi has not yet even visited Wuhan. He dispatched his second in command. The lesson here? It takes a different person, perhaps braver, smarter or stronger, to succeed in a revolution, than it does to manage the country afterwards. The event was a masterpiece, showing that Mao, then 73, was strong and a force to be reckoned with. The economic growth in China has been stupendous. If the suspicions this article are valid, all that is now needed is to clean up the toilets in its many fish markets.

The family of this writer has accused him of racism in this article. Perhaps some readers may agree. It was a surprise accusation for I do not believe that I have a racist bone in my body. The statements in this article are speculative, not backed with the rigorous investigation of any other project. Speculation is the initiating thought for many technical developments. It is hoped, therefore, that the comments may bring about change, if only to the cleaning up of toilets in public eating houses. Remember SARS also started in China in 2002. MERS, the Middle East respiratory syndrome, from Saudi Arabia, also spread to China.

But to repeat, the comments are not racist. What is racism? The Australian Human rights Commission defines it as "prejudice, discrimination or hatred directed at someone because of their colour, ethnicity or national origin." It is often associated with acts of abuse or harassment. This environmental project was under the direction of the Overseas Projects Corporation of Victoria. Projects in near to forty countries, with the World Bank, UN agencies, similar to that in Wuhan, from Africa through Asia to the Americas, would not be possible with racist views.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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