The business of espionage is often described as being one of shades of gray. It is an apt analogy. As an operations officer in CIA for many years, I lived in a world where I knew some things to be true, some to be false and had to accept that many, many other things were simply not completely known at any one point in time.
It helps to navigate that world to develop a fine sense of knowing instinctively what is not true. On many occasions, over the years, in supervising junior officers, I would find myself saying, ”I don’t yet know what the truth is, but that’s not it.” We might not yet know what the real story was, but at least we could be comfortable in saying that what we were being told at the time was a lie.
Which brings me to the coronavirus.
According to the Chinese government, a grand total of somewhere around 1500 Chinese have died in two months from the coronavirus. China is a nation of 1.4 billion people. In the sixty days that have elapsed since the Chinese admitted they had a problem with this disease probably more than 1500 people have been run over crossing the street or died of food poisoning. In the grand scheme of things, one thousand five hundred people out of a population the size of China’s is nothing. Certainly not to a brutal Communist regime that imprisons, tortures and executes its citizens as a matter of routine.
And, yet, the Chinese, while continuing to claim that the situation is under control and everyone should relax, have taken measures that are mind-boggling in scope. In effect, they have shut down virtually all daily activities, including manufacturing, in a very large part of the country. Entire cities with populations of millions of people are under lockdown with barriers and checkpoints on roads to prevent anyone from breaking quarantine. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/02/china-hardware-capital-yongkang-grinds-halt-coronavirus-fears/?cmpid=org=ngp::mc=social::src=twitter::cmp=editorial::add=tw20200211science-chinashutdowncoronavirus::rid=&sf229998400=1#closeA population exceeding that of the entire United States is under house arrest.
Travel within China during the recent Lunar New Year celebration – traditionally the biggest travel time of the year – fell off by 75% compared to last year. Air travel has dropped dramatically. The trucking industry has ground to an almost complete halt. Estimates are that current trucking activity on Chinese roads is 1% of what it was before the virus hit. Nothing is moving.
The demand for steel to be used in construction is down 88% in China compared to where it was a year ago. In effect, demand will be at zero within the very near future. Building has come to a halt.
Morgan Stanley recently took a look at pollution levels in key Chinese cities in an effort to indirectly determine the level of activity in those areas. It found that among some of the top Chinese cities including Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Chengdu, air pollution was only 20-50% of the historical average. Morgan Stanley concluded, “This could imply that human activities such as traffic and industrial production within/close to those cities are running 50-80% below their potential capacity.”
Oil use in China has dropped off by twenty percent already, and shippers have found themselves unable to offload oil in tankers bound for China. As a consequence, tankers filled with oil are now stacking up in ports all over Asia, riding at anchor and waiting for somewhere to offload. Oil prices are plummeting across the globe as producers find themselves with a glut of product.
Satellite imagery has revealed massive heat blooms and releases of sulfur dioxide in the vicinity of Chinese cities hit by the coronavirus. These heat blooms are consistent with the burning of large numbers of bodies. Chinese authorities recently ordered a surge of funeral home workers to infected areas in an apparent attempt to keep up with cremations. Crematoriums are running 24/7.
Chinese authorities have also issued a whole series of orders decreeing that bodies of individuals believed to have died from the virus be burned immediately. Families are not permitted to see their loved ones and funerals are not permitted. Cremation vans filled with bodies run directly from hospitals to cremation sites.
China has also now opened a series of “hospitals”, which are in reality quarantine holding facilities. Citizens are being transported against their will to these locations, where they are held under conditions resembling those in place at Chinese prisons. These are not medical facilities at which people are treated. These are holding pens where people wait to die.
On February 6, 2020, Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan ordered officials to go door to door and to screen the body temperature of every person residing in the city. Strict punishment was promised if any individual escaped screening.
diagnosed coronavirus patients; suspected patients; patients who have a fever and have yet to be diagnosed for the virus; and those who have close contact with diagnosed and suspected patients. All individuals following into any of the four categories were then to be forcibly removed to quarantine centers.
In short, simply having “close contact” with a “suspected patient” now means you will be removed from your home and held in a camp in close proximity to individuals known to be infected. This is, in effect, a likely death sentence. Hence photos leaking out of China of masked security personnel carrying firearms as they go door to door
Much remains unknown. The true scope of the disaster overtaking China is as yet undetermined. Where this all goes from here remains unclear.
The Chinese seem determined to attempt to restart their economy. If they continue down that path it will mean that hundreds of millions of workers locked down at home – many in infected areas – will be driven back into the crowded dormitories where they live most of the time. If the virus remains uncontrolled then that move may be the equivalent of pouring jet fuel on a campfire, as the virus rampages through tight living quarters and dense populations.
What we can say with certainty, however, is this. The official Chinese government story that there’s nothing to worry about here – It’s a lie.
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