New Delhi: Chinese President Xi Jinping delayed his warning to the world about Covid-19 by six days and US President Donald Trump didn’t act on it for six more weeks, a new CNN report has said.
In the investigative report titled China’s Deadly Secret broadcast late Sunday (EST), US journalist and political scientist Fareed Zakaria highlighted how the Chinese health authorities handled the early days of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
— CNN (@CNN) May 25, 2020
The report revealed that China’s early errors made the outbreak even worse. It said the local government in Wuhan tried to cover up the outbreak initially, but it’s unclear if President Xi knew about it then.
Zakaria held a discussion with experts, which began with him posing these questions: “Once upon a time, there was just one person with a fever and a cough, how did we go from that first case to a global catastrophe? Could the virus be stopped? What happened in the earlier days when they knew that they were at war with a virus? What did the Chinese government know and when did they know it?”
‘Largest political potluck’
According to the CNN report, the “unseen enemy” invaded Wuhan in mid-December.
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“They just seemed to have a bunch of pneumonia patients,” said The New York Times health and science reporter Donald McNeil, Jr.
On 30 December, a Chinese doctor, Dr Li Wenliang, sent out an advisory to other doctors to “lookout” for this virus. He asked them not to circulate this news but it got out anyway. At the time, he was detained by the Chinese officials for spreading ‘fake news’, said the report.
The next day, China told the World Health Organization (WHO) about the illness. On 9 January, scientists in China identified the coronavirus but strongly asserted that it “didn’t appear transmissible”.
Despite the dire circumstances, the Communist Party of China hosted a banquet for over 1,000 people in Wuhan. The move came despite the virus racing through as local officials then broke the record for the “largest political potluck”, it said.
During the discussion on the show, Yanzhong Huang, professor and senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “Evidence suggesting that transmission was occurring made the situation even worse.”
While Wuhan emerged as a hotspot for Covid-19, the virus made international headlines. At this point, Beijing got “worried” and sent a team of Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention workers to Wuhan to investigate. However, the team leader himself contracted the viral disease, said the CNN report.
On 14 January, the virus was diagnosed in Thailand. Then the Chinese officials held a critical teleconference, during which officials acknowledged that the virus could potentially become a pandemic. A highest-level emergency response was issued, but only inside the Chinese government.
“But it would be only six more days before Chinese President Xi Jinping warned the world that China had a serious problem. Why did the Chinese government wait six days until that teleconference? In those days, thousands of people travelled in and out of Wuhan,” said the report.
Yanzhong said, “There was a cover-up going on.”
Author and New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos said, “Everything we know about the way the Chinese political system works tells us that the local government was probably a scapegoat. The crisis was handled from the top. Whether or not Xi Jinping knew about it from the very beginning or heard about it later I find it implausible to imagine that the government wasn’t aware of the pandemic.”
He added, “China has effectively created a system of information transfer internally in secrecy.”
On 21 January, the first known case of coronavirus was found in Washington. At the time, President Donald Trump had “dismissed those concerns and spoke of Xi Jinping in glowing terms”. He had also tweeted thanking China for its transparency.
China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2020
What China did to the whistleblower
The report said a complete lockdown was finally imposed in Wuhan on 23 January. At this point, the decision to “silence” Dr Li Wenliang had proven to be a “catastrophe”. He was persecuted for sounding the alarm but then he died of the same virus.
Li’s statement went viral across all social media platforms. “I believe that there should be more than one voice in a health society,” the report quoted Li as having said before his death.
His death became a trigger for resistance against the Chinese officials’ handling of the virus and their attempts to cover it up. They blew whistles for the whistleblowers and posted tributes for him, said the report.
A hashtag titled #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech also started trending on Chinese social media. The outpour was such that it was able to swamp Chinese censorship. Osnos said, “The Chinese officials saw this as the greatest challenge to their authority since Tiananmen Square… However, they didn’t want to clampdown entirely, they wanted to allow rage to outpour in the limited confines of the internet.”
Overnight, the Chinese government made a switch and turned Li into a “martyr”, bestowing on him the highest civilian honour.
Osnos saw this as an “act of political desperation”. He explained that after this, the Chinese sense of pride gripped its citizens and President Xi Jinping was able to place himself as the man who “led people out of the harm’s way”.
Draconian methods to contain Covid-19
The report said it could be “tempting to say that authoritarianism played a part in China containing the pandemic but strategic planning did as well”.
President Xi Jinping declared a “people’s war”, which is a Maoist term indicating “to crush an enemy”. However, the report highlighted that crushing the enemy for China entailed “measures that wouldn’t fly in other countries”.
Osnos said, “They undertook these draconian methods that Americans would not accept. The blunt fact is that the authoritarian system actually helped them contain the virus. People already had this built in sense of surveillance in their lives.”
McNeil said Wuhan was the “most extensive shutdown in the history of the world”. “The officials turned hotels, schools and other public centres into mandatory quarantine centres.”
The report showed videos of people being forcefully removed from their homes and being put into quarantine centres. Doctors in Wuhan maintained that this “aggressive” regime was the “turning point” in controlling the outbreak, it said.
Moreover, the country relied on mobile apps for contact tracing. People were assigned scan-able QR codes which revealed their risk of getting the virus. If the code showed green, it allowed unrestricted movement, yellow indicated moderate risk while red indicated the need to quarantine, it said.
“The trade-off between individual rights and public safety in the wake of a pandemic is one both government and citizens are reevaluating,” added the CNN report.
Towards the end of the report, Fareed Zakaria said though local governments in China were involved in “covering-up” the situation in Wuhan, it “remains unclear whether the central government was directing this or complicit in it”.
He also pointed out China’s reasons behind the alleged cover-up. “Most likely local officials wanted to remove bad news from moving upto to Beijing. They wanted to keep their economies buzzing, they feared that their initial incompetence would be revealed but it’s possible that Beijing was involved for similar reasons,” he said.
Zakaria added that it’s worth remembering that China “is a dictatorship and at its core this means that it always seeks to control information, it suppresses free speech, censors news, restricts access all to shape a favourable narrative”.
“Beijing has also stomped up on any purely scientific papers on Covid to be published until they have been cleared by the communist party. There is no such thing as science or research that is hailed political in China, but when a crisis hits even biology must be made subordinate to the interests of the Communist Party,” he said.
However, Zakaria asserted that the outbreak of Covid-19 was inevitable. “China had little to do with the spread of the virus around the world which would probably have happened inevitably due to the extent of travel and trade in China,” he said.
Fareed Zakaria also called out US President Donald Trump for his “misjudgment” in handling the Covid-19 crisis.
“Like Wuhan officials in early January, Trump probably made a judgment that the virus would not be a big problem. He said that it would go away in April with warm weather. He too, was worried that taking strong action would spook the economy or stock market. It is those misjudgments that have significantly worsened the Covid crisis in America,” he said.
Zakaria added, “Remember the accusation against China is that they delayed telling the world the nature of the virus for five or six days. Donald Trump delayed acting on information he had for five or six weeks…”
He also said the fastest way to “defeat this virus would be to build an international coalition that would get countries to pool resources, share information and coordinate actions”.
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