‘The situation has changed radically’
As 2020 dawned, China stepped up its efforts to control knowledge about the coronavirus.
- From Inquirer
May 9, 2020
- 6 MINUTE READ
This is the fourth part of our investigation by Cameron Stewart and Will Glasgow on China and the coronavirus. Read part one here; part two here; and part three here
As 2020 dawned, China stepped up its efforts to control knowledge about the virus. On New Year’s Eve, its censors introduced 45 coronavirus keywords to block online discussion of the emerging outbreak. According to Canada-based internet censorship research organisation Citizen Lab, this was later expanded to blocking 516 key words relating to the coronavirus. Any criticism of leaders or officials was blocked, as were any alerts to the public about the disease.
As this was happening, Li Wenliang was summoned to the Wuhan Public Security Bureau along with seven others who had issued online warnings about the virus. They were accused of spreading “hoaxes” and Li was forced to sign a statement that admitted to his “misdemeanour”.
Trump has accused China of grossly underestimating the number of infections and deaths from the virus in Wuhan and surrounding areas. A leaked report from Wuhan Central Hospital shows that local party officials put up barriers to doctors reporting cases, including requiring separate confirmation and approval to file each case. The guidelines also said patients could be counted only if they were linked in some way to the city’s main wet market, a rule that excluded the growing number of cases outside that cluster.
Citing classified Chinese government data, the South China Morning Post reported that by the end of February more than 40,000 COVID-19 infections, then a third of China’s official total, had been omitted from its tally.
On January 9, after China announced it had mapped the coronavirus genome, the WHO praised Beijing for its handling of the outbreak and argued against the need for travel restrictions.
“Preliminary identification of a novel virus in a short period of time is a notable achievement and demonstrates China’s increased capacity to manage new outbreaks,” the WHO said, adding that “the virus does not spread readily between people”.
Behind closed doors, the Chinese disease prevention apparatus was much more worried. On January 14, it held a confidential teleconference to discuss the growing crisis. At the meeting, the head of China’s National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, laid out an assessment that was frank by official Chinese standards.
Notes of the meeting, revealed by the Associated Press, stated that the teleconference was held to convey instructions on the coronavirus from Xi, Premier Li Keqiang and Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan.
“The epidemic situation is still severe and complex, the most severe challenge since SARS in 2003, and is likely to develop into a major public health event,” the memo cited Ma as saying.
Publicly, things were still much more relaxed. On the same day as the grave teleconference, the WHO tweeted that “preliminary investigations conducted by Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the virus.
The next day Li Qun, the head of the China CDC’s emergency centre, said: “After careful screening and prudent judgment, we have reached the latest understanding that the risk of human-to-human transmission is low.”
To what extent did China’s early attempts to keep the virus a secret and play down its impact retard its own response to the threat?
‘I’ve often thought to myself, what would have happened if I could wind back time’
An international academic study in March, funded in part by billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, found that if action had been taken against the outbreak “one week, two weeks or three weeks earlier in China, cases could have been reduced by 66 per cent, 86 per cent, and 95 per cent”.
Wuhan Central Hospital doctor Ai said: “I regret that back then I didn’t keep screaming out at the top of my voice. I’ve often thought to myself, what would have happened if I could wind back time.”
But the Chinese government was not ready to listen because it was worried the virus would undermine its international reputation. China had form in this respect. It was criticised for covering up SARS when it broke out in late 2002 and disclosed the virus months after it began to spread widely. Back then, elite politics contributed to the delay as the party leadership was preoccupied with the handover from Jiang Zemin to his successor as general secretary, Hu Jintao.
The cover-up then was even more blatant. To hide the spread of SARS from a visiting team from the WHO, infected patients were put into ambulances to get them out of the Beijing hospitals that the WHO team was inspecting.
On January 17, three days before the Chinese government publicly admitted the virus could be transmitted between humans, the US CDC began screening passengers for infections after they arrived from Wuhan. With between 60,000 and 65,000 people travelling between Wuhan and the US each year, the potential for contagion was obvious.
But US officials at that stage were not seriously concerned by the threat — a strikingly different approach to Taiwan, an island as expert in the secrecy of the Chinese Communist Party as it is in infectious respiratory diseases.
“We know it is crucial to be proactive and prepared,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the US National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, said at the time. “(But) we believe the current risk from the virus to the general public is low.”
The next day, January 18, Health Secretary Azar first briefed Trump about the virus at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Three days later, the first American, a man from Seattle, tested positive to the virus after returning from Wuhan.
Even so, Trump said he was unconcerned and that it was “totally under control … it’s one person coming in from China”.
In China, Xi made his first public statement on the virus on January 20, conveyed through state media. On the same day Zhong Nanshan, an 83-year-old who became a Chinese national hero after the SARS crisis, appeared on state television station to admit what Wuhan health officials had known for weeks — the virus was spreading between humans.
Despite this, just two days later, a WHO emergency committee concluded that the virus did not constitute a “public health emergency of international concern”.
After playing down the existence of the virus and its infectious nature, China then made a blunder that helped spread coronavirus across the globe.
On January 23 it shut down Wuhan, halting public transportation in and out of the city. But despite knowing the virus was on the rampage with 17 dead and more than 500 infections, it waited four more days — until January 27 — to suspend group travel to foreign countries. This meant that on the popular Lunar New Year holidays there was a massive exodus of Chinese travellers to all parts of the globe. Any hope that the coronavirus would be mostly contained in China was lost.
Australia recorded its first case of coronavirus during this period, on January 25.
By the end of January, with infections soaring in China and 259 deaths recorded there, the White House began to debate banning travel into the US from China, a source of 23,000 visitors a day.
For four days in the White House situation room, public health and national security officials clashed over the issue, with Azar telling Trump: “The situation has changed radically.”
On January 31, Trump was eventually persuaded by his health advisers to ban entry by foreign nationals who had recently visited China.
Beijing, despite observing the rapid spread of the virus in China, criticised the US decision, claiming it was “neither based in fact nor helpful” and “certainly not a gesture of goodwill”.
When Australia announced its own travel ban for foreigners travelling from China several days later, Beijing criticised Canberra.