The world lives the anguish of succumbing to a pandemic. The emergency in hospitals, the shortage of medical supplies and equipment, and the dangers facing healthcare workers, even in the most powerful countries in the world; fear of the contagion among the population and the economic paralysis that augurs an unprecedented global recession, has brought us face to face with the greatest crisis the planet has experienced since the Second World War. The unusual thing is that we were warned. Just look where it all started.
Chinese tourists pray in a sanctuary in Bangkok. Photo: Reuters
In a study from the University of Hong Kong published in 2007, more than 10 years ago, infectious disease specialists concluded that “the presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS or other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefor the need for preparedness should not be ignored.”
(page 683 “Should we be ready for the reemergence of Sars?”)
In addition, leading epidemiologists warned that the worst could happen if we did not prepare. This is the case of the doctor Larry Brilliant, who has fought outbreaks of smallpox, influenza, and polio around the world, and has insisted for years on the need for a global and open alert system (not dependent on bureaucracy or the low transparency of some governments) to identify diseases in time and thus avoid a pandemic.
Three years ago, he warned of how little the world was prepared to face a pandemic and flagged cutback in funding for the rapid response system by the White House.
Dr. Brilliant assured: “Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.” He anticipated that if the planet were to experience a pandemic today, such as a fever or the Spanish flu, between 75 million and 300 million people would be infected. “It would bring humanity to its knees, there would’n be a plane in the sky for 6 months, (…) when there is no vaccine and no antiviral.” His statements have proven to be prophetic.
Dog and cat market in Yulín, China. Photo: AFP
In another study on bat coronaviruses in China published in the first quarter of 2019, Chinese epidemiologists warned that it was “highly likely that future coronavirus outbreaks such as SARS or MERS like coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats, and there is an increased probability that this will occur in China. Therefor the investigation of bat coronaviruses becomes an urgent issue for the detection of early warning signs, which in turn minimizes the impact of such future outbreaks in China.”
They Ignored the Red Flags
Just three days ago and after millions of Chinese people chastised their leaders, the authorities in the Asian country gave “solemn apologies” to the family of Dr. Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist who died of the coronavirus after being humiliated and reprimanded by the Wuhan police for the “audacity” to alert the public about a rare lung disease that was causing the death of several patients and infecting their relatives at the hospital where he worked.
The Chinese central government washed its hands and turned the responsibility over to the local authorities, whom it accused of failing to act properly and follow due legal procedures before punishing the doctor.
Then, the Chinese authorities praised Wenliang’s work to help raise awareness of the crisis and reported that the two policemen involved in the incident received disciplinary action.
The apologies were too little too late. At the end of December 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang had raised flags about several cases, detected as early as December 8, in a chat to several colleagues. He warned of a mysterious disease that presented symptoms similar to SARS, another deadly coronavirus that left 774 dead in 2003 and caused an epidemic that spread to several countries.
Four days after his publishing his alert, the police accused Dr. Wenliang of having “severely disrupted the social order” by spreading rumors. They punished him and the Office of Public Security forced him to sign a confession stating that his comments were false. They threatened that if he continued “with this illegal activity, there would be legal consequences.”
After official press reports addressing Li Wenliang’s death and denials by health authorities, the Wuhan Central Hospital finally confirmed the doctor’s death on February 6 in the midst of his quarantine. He was 34 years old. He left behind a 4-year-old girl and his wife, pregnant with their second child.
The pain some Chinese citizens felt over Li’s death turned into a collective condemnation against the government for concealing the severity of a virus that was transmittable among humans. Serious questions were raised about the lack of freedom of information in communist China.
Posthumous homage to Dr. Li Wenliang. Photo: Asia News
It is undeniable that the hermeticism and censorship by the Chinese Communist Party, specifically at the critical stage when the outbreak begun, has cost us thousands of human lives. And the following facts seem to confirm it.
China Withheld Vital Information
Some independent media sources indicated that at the start of the crisis, Chinese authorities told nurses and doctors that there were no major risks.
In the first weeks of 2020, authorities in Wuhan insisted that only those who came into contact with infected animals could contract the virus.
Government propaganda was repeated by official media sources in order to avoid widespread panic, all while events with large crowds were happening in Wuhan.
According to the financial magazine Caixin, founded by Hu Shuli (one of China’s most respected journalists), in early January the communist leadership prohibited several laboratories in the country from disclosing results from several patients who, since December 2019, suffered from an unexplained viral pneumonia. Moreover, Wuhan is home to an advanced infectious diseases research laboratory.
Caixin magazine, among other media, has been censored for disseminating articles critical of the government, precisely due to the lack of transparency during the outbreak of the epidemic. At least three journalists who questioned the appalling way in which the health crisis was handled have been detained and their whereabouts remain unclear. Others have had their cameras confiscated, have been forced to delete their recordings, and there are also known cases where some journalistic publications have been removed from the internet.
The Chinese government waited until January 20th to admit that the virus was contagious among people. At that time, the authorities finally declared a state of emergency. 21 days had passed since Dr. Li had published his alert.
Xi Jinping, president of China. Photo: Getty Images
It was then that the government reported the severity of the epidemic to the World Health Organization and the White House, among other entities, and on January 23, announced a total quarantine in the city of Wuhan, with 11 million inhabitants. It was not long before the measure was extended to other major cities such as Beijing, requiring 60 million people to go into confinement.
By February 14, more than 1,700 healthcare workers had caught the virus and six had died, for a total of 1,523 dead and some 66,492 infected in China, according to WorldoMeter. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/china/
What would have happened if China, once the first cases were known, had taken the measures it adopted several weeks later after it was at an epidemic stage?
They lost crucial days that could have been dedicated to containing the spread of the virus. Due to their irresponsibility and absolute negligence, they have endangered the lives of millions of people in 188 countries and territories across the globe.
Mandatory confinement in Hubei province and other regions didn’t occur until seven weeks after the outbreak began in Wuhan, and those seven weeks of inaction opened the floodgates to the pandemic.
Just look at the exponential growth of those infected by this contagious virus and what can happen, not in seven weeks, but in just four days.
According to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, it took 67 days for the first 100,000 people to catch the disease, 11 days to double to 200,000 cases, and only four days to exceed 300,000 infections worldwide.
While Europe, Latin America, and the United States had not yet seen the worst of the outbreak, to the surprise of many, on March 13 the authorities in China reported that the peak of the epidemic in their country had already come to an end. From 2,000 cases a day, they reported a decrease to six cases per day plus a few other so-called “imported” people who had arrived infected from other countries. Furthermore, they spoke of how, day by day, life was returning to normality. To date, China has had 3,270 deaths and 81,093 infected, according to Worldometer statistical data.
No one denies that the Asian nation has made a great effort to control the epidemic, one that has even been praised by the WHO, an organization that, incidentally, received a donation of $20 million from the Chinese government to combat the health crisis. However, the numbers raise suspicions about whether they reflect all of reality.
Red Cross volunteers in Indonesia. Photo: Reuters
Many cases and deaths, according to the Caixin portal, were not reported because an unknown number of people, particularly elderly folks, were not tested for coronavirus are were sent home to quarantine where it is possible they may have passed the virus on to their relatives.
The publication also denounced the Chinese government for pressuring merchants to keep their businesses open by, in some cases, subsiding electricity and imposing production quotas. According to Caixin sources, the central government is lying about the increase in productivity and has published false data to the point that governments in some provinces have been forced to keep their factory machines and lights on all day, despite employees not going to work.
The PR Campaign
The White House received a blow on Twitter, a social network banned in China, by Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, when he claimed that the epidemic was the result of a disease brought by US military members when they visited Wuhan last October.
It was no surprise that, a few days later, President Donald Trump began referring to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus.” Many, including the WHO, attempted to avoid referencing the virus this way because it stigmatizes Chinese people, some of who have been attacked and harassed both in Europe and in the United States.
In an unusual statement released by the official Xinhua news agency, China acknowledged “deficiencies in the response to the coronavirus outbreak” and admitted that they must “improve the management of their national emergency system, as well as the ability to handle urgent and dangerous tasks.” In the note they added: “It is necessary to strengthen the supervision of wet markets, and prohibit and dismantle the illegal animal trade.”
China’s public relations campaign began after many citizen around the world criticized and condemned the way in which the crisis was handled. As a way to make up for the damage, mitigate questions, and strengthen ties with allies, China is sending millions of face masks, medical supplies, and hundreds of respirators to countries like Italy, Turkey, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Liberia, the Philippines, and Cambodia. And soon it will begin shipping supplies to Latin America. It appears that the humanitarian aid is bearing diplomatic fruit.
Why has China so far been treated with silk gloves by multilateral agencies and the international community when it is directly responsible for the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and its corresponding economic debacle?
This global tragedy has left us with a very important lesson. It is imperative that governments and citizens condemn dictatorships and their reprehensible censorship practices, which in this case have had an incalculable cost in human lives and economic damage for everyone. The future and dreams of millions of human beings have been left in limbo.
Lack of transparency in public health matters should be a crime against humanity. This shows us that authoritarian and hermetic regimes are a danger to global health and peace.
The crisis should leave us with another lesson: we need to end our dependence on cheap Chinese manufacturing, on which a good part of the healthcare industry depends. This epidemic in China jeopardized the global hospital and health response by not having enough basic supplies, which are largely made in China.
Many of my social media followers have agreed that China must bear serious consequences for its actions and omissions. They support boycotting Chinese products or expelling the Asian country from the UN where it has veto power; others speak of multimillion-dollar fines for the damages caused; some assert that the Chinese regime should be tried by the International Criminal Court, and there are some who have suggested organizing protests in front of Chinese embassies around the world once the quarantine is lifted.
If wet markets are “a ticking time bomb”, just as happened with the Iranian nuclear program, governments and the international community should demand that the Chinese government permanently staff scientists and epidemiologists from the WHO and independent institutions so they can inspect and ban markets that are sources of infection and that pose a serious threat to both the lives of millions of people and the health of the global economy.
We must rethink whether the free trade formula with the Asian giant, one where we allow business without restrictions, is best, especially considering how unreliable they have been in handling the coronavirus crisis. Today, we note with horror how the Chinese economic model of openness on the one hand, but totalitarianism on the other, has led us to a global health crisis whose effects are still unpredictable. Countries must demand transparency from China in terms of information flow, freedom, and democracy.
The least we can hope for is that, just as the Chinese dictatorship posthumously apologized to its new hero, Dr. Li Wenliang, it is time for the Xi Jinping administration to give an explanation and apologize to the world. Today more than ever we have realized that China, with its abuse, authoritarianism, and obscurantism, has pushed humanity to the brink of collapse.