In the early nineties, I was approached by a Chinese guy who had a strong political connection in the U.S. government to introduce us to the right folks in China. The objective was to evaluate and consider a privatization of certain Chinese onshore oil developments. Therein began a plane, train and road trip to many places in China just as it was coming out into the rest of the world. The oil aspect of it was not interesting but we did visit some unusual places in China. One of the “drive by” places was Wuhan, China. Another was Harbin, China which is beyond doubt a lesser-known place to most of you following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan.
I was reminded of Wuhan when it became known as the epicenter of the evolving Covid-19 pandemic. It was unnerving when we landed in Bangkok on January 25, 2020, to find hordes of Chinese crammed into the airport as they were there to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Coincidentally, that date was the first time President Trump was briefed on the virus which was largely shrugged off by his most trusted advisors. We had been forewarned of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan while in Japan on a business trip. In fact, most everyone on the Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to Bangkok wore masks except we ignorant westerners. There were several families from Wuhan at our hotel in Bangkok who were abruptly summoned back to Wuhan by the Chinese government.
Clearly the virus, which has claimed some 3.7 million lives with deaths in excess of 600,000 in the U.S., has had a huge impact around the world. I have a close Chinese friend who happens to be a physician born and raised in Hebei province where Wuhan is located. He said there was little doubt that Covid-19 originated in the Virological Research Center in Wuhan, shown below. Therefore, it is pretty clear that the pandemic started there and could have been contained if addressed earlier. Sometimes, the more you deny something and preclude outside inspection, the more convinced everyone becomes that you are the culprit. Moreover, China is certainly not the most transparent place around.
Although most people believe Wuhan was the home of the Covid-19 virus, few people know that Harbin was the home to the first use of masks to combat airborne disease transmission. My geologist and close friend, Bill, and I once landed in Harbin in the middle of the night. It was like being back in the coldest parts of Russia with all of the snow to match. A group of lady Chinese tourists from tropical Singapore were standing next to Bill at baggage claim. As the reborn Buddha, Bill could get away with most anything he said to women so he asked why they we were so far away from the equator. Their response was to experience winter. To Bill’s chagrin, we hopped in a car to drive through the snowy night and tour the Chinese oil fields of Daqing the next several days.
The end of the Chinese Qing Dynasty was prefaced by a plague that began in late 1910. Dr. Wu Lien-Teh was sent to Harbin to investigate a disease that caused tens of thousands of deaths. Dr. Wu performed autopsies and determined that the plague was a respiratory disease caused by a bacterium similar to the one that resulted in the bubonic plague in the West. As a respiratory disease, he concluded masks were the most effective preventative possible. Dr. Wu, as shown below, set up a command center in Harbin which was managed much like a military operation.
Masked medical practitioners conducted temperature checks to screen people to determine whether they were infected. You can get a sense of the winter weather conditions in Harbin from the photo below. In fact, Harbin has become better known for its ice sculpture festival. Eighty years later from Dr. Wu’s Qing Dynasty days, the architecture of their buildings reflected a strong Russian influence and their alcoholic spirits were a lot more like vodka than the rice wine of the remainder of China.
For those poor souls who exhibited symptoms of the disease they were quarantined in sheds like those shown below which do not look that appealing to me.
Dr. Wu had served as vice director of the Imperial Army College near Beijing. Therefore, he stepped into this role with a military presence of authority. He has been likened to Dr. Fauci in the U.S. but Dr. Fauci’s very clear position on masks, quarantines and lockdowns were undercut by political differences that were not necessarily based on science. Moreover, in Harbin the plague was brought under control in four months. Dr. Wu also perfected a mask design based on ventilators from the UK Victorian period: padding layers of cotton and gauze with strings so they could be securely placed over the face. Further, they were produced at a cost that made them affordable to everyone at the time.
One can only guess how many lives could have been saved in the U.S. alone had we adopted Dr. Wu’s approach from over 110 years ago—masks, temperature checks, quarantines and lockdowns. Some estimates have been as many as 200,000 lives. Nonetheless, many more could be saved if everyone got in step with the vaccine program. Hey, why not get the jab, maybe win a million bucks in a lottery in some states or have a free beer throughout the country? Thanks to The New York Times for the material on Dr. Wu.