August 15, 2020

The similarity between nitrogen and the coronavirus

By Barend ter Haar.

On 30 December 2019, Dr Li Wenliang[1] warned his medical friends of a dangerous outbreak of coronavirus infections. This warning was shared with others and soon spread over the Chinese internet. Four days later the Chinese government took action. The police told Dr Li that he had “severely disturbed the social order” and forced him to declare that his warning was an illegal rumour.[2]

The Chinese authorities managed to suppress the truth for a few weeks until finally admitting that Dr Li had been right. The drastic measures they then took to contain the virus would have been much more effective if they had not lost precious time trying to suppress the bad news. Dr Li, who had contracted the virus in the hospital where he worked, became a national hero. When his condition became critical, more than 17 million people watched the live stream for his status updates. He died on 7 February 2020. 

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, later acknowledged “obvious shortcomings in the response to the epidemic” but he did not say what lessons he had learned.[3] One obvious lesson is that a quick response to the crisis was hindered by the desire of the Chinese government to be in full control of the public debate.  

However, behind this problem is a deeper problem that is not typically Chinese, but universal. That problem is that the interests of politicians do not always coincide with the public interest. Politicians want to remain in government. They therefore like to present a rosy picture of their accomplishments and to suppress bad news, even when it would be in the public interest to take the bad news seriously and act upon it. Politicians are in that sense not much different from private companies that seek to continue their lucrative business. The efforts of tobacco companies to suppress the evidence that smoking is fatally dangerous are a well-known example. 

This universal problem can be seen in the Netherlands as well. The Dutch government, for example, suppressed for more than eight years the bad news that its policy on nitrogen pollution was not working.[4]Although experts had pointed out that the government’s policy was untenable, the government continued to mislead the general public with unfounded promises.

The disastrous consequences of nitrogen pollution are not as acutely visible as the outbreak of a virus, and that is why the Dutch government got away with this for so many years. But when the government finally was forced to take action, very drastic measures were needed to repair the damage: around 18,000 infrastructure, construction and agricultural projects are now at risk.

Like the Chinese and other governments, the Dutch government likes to publicize its successes but prefers to ignore bad news. The result is that its credibility is undermined and that valuable time is lost to deal with the causes of the bad news. 


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Wenliang

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51403795

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/23/world/asia/china-coronavirus.html

[4] https://www.trouw.nl/verdieping/hoe-het-stikstofgedrocht-groeide-en-ter-wereld-kwam~be56db7b/

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