Internal documents and retrospective infection data obtained by the Associated Press (AP) reveal that Chinese officials did not notify the public about the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak for six days in January, even after realizing that a potential pandemic was on the horizon.
In those six days, the Chinese city of Wuhan – the original epicenter of COVID-19 – held a mass banquet for tens of thousands of people, and millions more began traveling through the city ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.
According to AP, the Chinese government’s delay in notifying the public of the impending pandemic “came at a critical time.”
“This is tremendous,” Zuo Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently told AP. “If they took action six days earlier, there would have been much fewer patients and medical facilities would have been sufficient. We might have avoided the collapse of Wuhan’s medical system.”
Those six days were contained in a period from January 5 to January 17 in which China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not register any new coronavirus cases reported by Wuhan-area officials, according to AP, which obtained access to internal bulletins.
“Doctors in Wuhan were afraid,” said Dali Yang, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Chicago. “It was truly intimidation of an entire profession.”
The AP investigation also found that it was only after the first case outside China was reported in Thailand on January 13 that Beijing officials began “distributing CDC-sanctioned test kits, easing the criteria for confirming cases and ordering health officials to screen patients.” That is also when officials in Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the capital, were ordered to check travelers’ temperatures at certain checkpoints and forbid large public gatherings.
The Chinese government has repeatedly denied that it hid any information from the public and claims to have immediately notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the outbreak.
“Those accusing China of lacking transparency and openness are unfair,” foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Wednesday.
“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 quotes Ma as saying.
The documents cited by AP, which were obtained from an anonymous source in the medical field, were later verified by two other sources in the public health field that were aware of the teleconference. Some of the memo’s contents were published in February, although various details were left out.
“The imperatives for social stability, for not rocking the boat before these important Party congresses is pretty strong,” Daniel Mattingly, a scholar of Chinese politics at Yale University, explained, referring to why the Chinese government may have waited almost a week before notifying the public of the viral outbreak. “My guess is, they wanted to let it play out a little more and see what happened.”
Following the teleconference, China’s CDC reportedly “initiated the highest-level emergency response internally” on January 15.
However, Chinese officials continued to understate the severity of the outbreak to the public.
“We have reached the latest understanding that the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission is low,” Li Qun, the head of the Chinese CDC, said on Chinese state television on January 15. However, according to a CDC notice obtained by AP, that was the same day that Li was appointed as the leader of a group responsible for carrying out emergency plans to contain the virus.
President Xi only made his first public comments on the virus on January 20, saying that it “must be taken seriously.” That day also marked the first time that a top Chinese epidemiologist, Zhong Nanshan, revealed to the masses that the virus could be passed between people. However, medical professionals in Wuhan have told Chinese media that there were many signs that the virus was transmittable between people in late December.
Some health experts have argued that the government’s delayed announcement was not unreasonable.
“They may not have said the right thing, but they were doing the right thing,” said Ray Yip, the retired founding head of the US CDC’s office in China. “On the 20th, they sounded the alarm for the whole country, which is not an unreasonable delay.”
However, other officials disagreed, stating that the world may have been better able to combat the coronavirus had China been more upfront about it from the beginning.
“The CDC acted sluggishly, assuming all was fine,” an unidentified Chinese state health expert told AP. “If we started to do something a week or two earlier, things could have been so much different.”
Whether or not China failed to appropriately inform the public about the virus, the ball was dropped by several other countries, as many leaders failed to implement preventative measures after the COVID-19 outbreak became known in late January.
US President Donald Trump was seen repeatedly downplaying the virus, while the US CDC created malfunctioning test kits that eventually led to a massive delay in testing. UK Prime Minister Boris Jonhson sneered at the threat of the disease, initially calling for a “herd immunity” strategy before contracting the virus himself and having to be hospitalized as a result.
Today, more than 2 million people around the world have contracted COVID-19, and more than 132,000 people have succumbed to the deadly disease. More than 210 countries and territories around the world have been affected by the virus, with many people living under stringent lockdown measures.
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