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What Went Wrong with China’s Initial Response to the Coronavirus?

As the world deals with the reality of a global health crisis, the Chinese government’s original handling of the coronavirus outbreak has come into question and been widely criticized. Government officials there have been accused of downplaying the severity of the virus in the early stages of its discovery in Wuhan and failing to quickly enact strict measures to contain it within the geographic area where it began. Instead, evidence suggests that authorities concealed the extent of the outbreak and actively engaged in silencing doctors and healthcare workers who attempted to shed light on the issue. While China did later employ aggressive strategies to combat the disease domestically, the irreparable damage had already been done, and the virus had by then spread well outside the nation’s borders.

The novel coronavirus, known scientifically as COVID-19, was first detected in Wuhan, China back in early-mid December of last year. Wuhan is a large city of 11 million people in the Hubei province of central China. The cases found during that time there were identified as a new type of coronavirus, after respiratory pathogens such as influenza, adenovirus, and others were ruled out. Despite these dating back to the first half of the month, China did not report the issue to the World Health Organization (WHO) until December 31st, 2019. Furthermore, the Chinese government did not impose a lockdown in Wuhan to quarantine the epicenter of the outbreak until January 23rd, 2020 – leaving a period of over one month in which millions of people are estimated to have left the city. According to Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago, “the fact is 5 million people left Wuhan before it was locked down, and that’s why we have a global issue.” By the time that China alerted the world about the disease’s outbreak at the end of the calendar year and began taking action to address it in January, a significant amount of critical early mitigation time had already passed in the preceding weeks.

They not only failed to act soon enough, but officials are also believed to have silenced medical professionals that tried to warn others about the seriousness of the new outbreak. One such example of this is Ai Fen, Director of the Wuhan Central Hospital’s emergency department, who shared a diagnostic report with colleagues expressing concern regarding the similarities between the new disease and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After doing so, she was reprimanded by the city’s health commission for “spreading rumors” and was told to not speak about it, even to members of her own family. Ai and other hospital staff also determined that the virus was transmissible from human-to-human well before government officials were willing to acknowledge or report that it was, a key finding that could have played a vital role in preventing new cases and infections.

Perhaps the most notable coronavirus whistleblower to be censored by authorities was Dr. Li Wenliang. Li posted a message in his medical school alumni group on the popular Chinese messaging app, WeChat, warning that there were a series of patients who had upper respiratory infections in Wuhan that seemed similar to prior SARS outbreaks. After screenshots of his messages went viral, Li was accused of rumor-mongering by the Wuhan police and was summoned by officials at his hospital to explain how he knew about the cases. Li’s selfless actions seem to have prompted authorities to finally reveal the outbreak and alert the WHO, as this was done shortly after he was interrogated. Less than two weeks later, he was hospitalized and tested positive for the coronavirus. Li passed away in early February, becoming a symbol of the fight against state censorship, and Chinese authorities eventually cleared him of wrongdoing.

The cases of Ai and Li demonstrate how authorities in China actively worked to control the narrative surrounding the outbreak in its early stages. The central government attempted to dissuade and instill fear in potential whistleblowers by broadcasting police announcements on television across the country which emphasized that there would be “zero tolerance for rumormongers.” Additionally, officials also falsely contended that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission despite the fact that medical professionals as far back as December had been consistently warning that there was. Ultimately, it was not until January 20th – three days before authorities finally took decisive action and placed Wuhan under lockdown – that the government admitted the virus was in fact transmissible between humans.

By the time that Chinese authorities decided to take strong action against the coronavirus in late January, a massive number of residents were already infected and millions had passed through or left the epicenter of Wuhan. During the period between officials reporting the outbreak to the WHO on December 31st, 2019 and the Wuhan lockdown on January 23rd, 2020, hundreds of new patients were being admitted into hospitals throughout China. It was only after cases started to spring up nationwide and outside China’s borders in nearby countries like Thailand that leaders in Beijing began to acknowledge the seriousness of the matter. This prompted them to distribute test kits on a wider scale, order authorities in virus hot spots to conduct temperature checks at transportation hubs, and cut down on large public gatherings, among other things.

However, at that point, the virus had unfortunately spread not only across China but well beyond its borders and was on its way to becoming a global health crisis. Some of the countries that were hit particularly hard after cases began to be reported outside of China were South Korea, Iran, Italy, Spain, and the United States. After coronavirus detections started to emerge all over the world, the WHO officially declared the outbreak a pandemic on March 11th. In the five months since its original discovery in Wuhan, nearly every country and territory on Earth has reported one or more cases of the virus. The only exceptions are isolated Pacific island nations and countries with unreliable data figures such as North Korea.

While we certainly have no way of knowing whether the current worldwide coronavirus pandemic was inevitable regardless of China’s initial response to the outbreak, one thing that is clear is authorities there did not do all they could at the onset to heed the warnings of medical professionals and attempt to mitigate the crisis. There were indications from the start that the virus posed a very serious threat, yet officials intentionally took part in covering this up and discouraging citizens from revealing vital information to the public about how easily transmissible it was between humans. Only after the coronavirus had ample time to become both a national and global issue did the Chinese government finally take decisive action, but by then it was too late.


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