A health worker wearing a mask to protect from the flu-like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) takes a woman's temperature, after she arrived by train from Guangzhou, at Hunghom railway station, Hong Kong April 24, 2003. REUTERS / KIN CHEUNG
A health worker wearing a mask to protect from the flu-like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) takes a woman's temperature, after she arrived by train from Guangzhou, at Hunghom railway station, Hong Kong April 24, 2003. REUTERS / KIN CHEUNG

London — On the eve of one of the biggest mass movements of people on earth, a new challenge has emerged for China’s leadership.

A respiratory virus which started in the central city of Wuhan has spread within China and overseas. The World Health Organisation could declare an international emergency.

It’s reminiscent of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus, which 17 years ago sparked global panic, affecting air travel and killing about 800 people. Since then there have been periodic concerns about the potential for other outbreaks, particularly viruses that could jump between animals and humans.

With recollections of SARS come memories of Beijing’s handling of the crisis. It was slow to respond at home, late in informing the world and cagey about how bad things were. China’s leaders were also criticised for their response to a subsequent contaminated milk scandal and revelations about bad vaccines.

So far Beijing has been faster to react. But the Communist Party is still carefully regulating information. That’s led ordinary Chinese to take to social media platforms to demand greater transparency.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese are about to travel for the Lunar New Year. With a virus on the move, the risks are high. For a party used to control, the task is to show that nothing is being hidden.

Bloomberg