‘Everybody in the country in the infectious disease field knew something was going on…’
(Liberty Headlines) Six days after determining that the coronavirus was a deadly pandemic, Chinese communist officials continued to cover it up while hosting massive celebrations for the country’s Lunar New Year, according to internal documents obtained by the Associated Press.
Even after after top Chinese officials secretly made the determination, the city of Wuhan—at the epicenter of the disease—hosted a banquet for tens of thousands of people and millions began traveling through for the annual celebrations.
The documents show that the head of China’s National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, laid out a grim assessment of the situation on Jan. 14 in a confidential teleconference with provincial health officials.
“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 cites Ma as saying.
“With the coming of the Spring Festival, many people will be traveling, and the risk of transmission and spread is high,” the memo continued. “All localities must prepare for and respond to a pandemic.”
Ma demanded officials unite around President Xi Jinping and made clear that political considerations and social stability were key priorities during the long lead-up to China’s two biggest political meetings of the year in March.
Xi finally warned the public on Jan. 20., but by that time, more than 3,000 people had been infected during almost a week of public silence, according to the AP’s analysis and expert estimates based on retrospective infection data.
The revelation comes as Democrats and their media allies in the United States continue to falsely attack President Donald Trump, claiming he failed to respond in a timely manner.
Trump has previously criticized China and the World Health Organization for engaging in the cover-up.
After U.S. health officials briefed government leaders around Jan. 23, Trump sprang into action.
By Jan. 31, Trump had convened the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, declared a public health emergency and, based on expert recommendations, banned travel to and from China—a move denounced as racist at the time by Democrats.
Some—including the New York Times—have since acknowledged that it was the correct decision.
Nonetheless, Trump continued throughout February and early March to reassure the public that the crisis was under control.
On March 11, the United Nations-backed WHO admitted COVID-19 was a global pandemic, causing the stock market to plummet.
Two days later, Trump declared a national emergency, allowing him to bypass many of the usual government regulations.
The following Monday, the White House issued social-distancing guidelines that encouraged gatherings be limited to no more than 10 people, effectively shutting down large sectors of the US economy. Many states soon rushed to enact draconian stay-at-home orders.
An Emerging Cover-Up
The virus is believed to have originated in a Wuhan wet market as early as November 2019 after being transmitted by bats.
But the delay between Jan. 14 to Jan. 20 by the first country to face the new coronavirus came at a critical time—the beginning of the outbreak.
China’s attempt to walk a line between alerting the public and avoiding panic set the stage for a pandemic that has infected more than 2 million people and taken more than 128,000 lives.
“This is tremendous,” said Zuo-Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“If they took action six days earlier, there would have been much fewer patients and medical facilities would have been sufficient,” Zhang said. “We might have avoided the collapse of Wuhan’s medical system.”
Even now, China’s suppression of data continues to paint an overly rosy—but ultimately sinister—picture about the virus’s toll there.
The punishment of eight doctors for “rumor-mongering,” broadcast on national television on Jan. 2, sent a chill through the city’s hospitals.
“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.”
Moreover, the six-day delay by China’s leaders in Beijing, from Jan. 14-20, came on top of almost two weeks during which the country’s national health authority, the Center for Disease Control, claimed it did not register any cases from local officials.
Yet during that time, from Jan. 5 to Jan. 17, hundreds of patients were appearing in hospitals, not just in Wuhan but across the country.
Only after the first case outside China, in Thailand on Jan. 13, emerged did Chinese officials launch a nationwide plan to distribute test kits.
They also instructed officials in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, to begin temperature checks at transportation hubs and cut down on large public gatherings. And they did it all without telling the public.
The Chinese government has repeatedly denied suppressing information in the early days, saying it immediately reported the outbreak to the World Health Organization.
“Those accusing China of lacking transparency and openness are unfair,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Wednesday when asked about the AP story.
Under Xi, China’s most authoritarian leader in decades, increasing political repression has made officials more hesitant to report cases without a clear green light from the top.
“It really increased the stakes for officials, which made them reluctant to step out of line,” said Daniel Mattingly, a scholar of Chinese politics at Yale. “It made it harder for people at the local level to report bad information.”
In the weeks after the severity of the epidemic became clear, some experts accused Wuhan officials of intentionally hiding cases.
“I always suspected it was human-to-human transmissible,” said Wang Guangfa, the leader of the second expert team, in a Mar. 15 post on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. He fell ill with the virus soon after returning to Beijing on Jan. 16.
Wuhan’s then-mayor, Zhou Xianwang, blamed national regulations for the secrecy.
“As a local government official, I could disclose information only after being authorized,” Zhou told state media in late January. “A lot of people didn’t understand this.”
During Chinese officials’ week of silence, Wuhan’s case count began to climb exponentially, from four on Jan. 17, then 17 the next day and 136 the day after.
Across the country, dozens of cases began to surface, in some cases among patients who were infected earlier but had not yet been tested.
A health expert told AP that on Jan. 19, she toured a hospital built after the SARS outbreak, where medical workers had furiously prepared an entire building with hundreds of beds for pneumonia patients.
“Everybody in the country in the infectious disease field knew something was going on,” she said, declining to be named to avoid disrupting sensitive government consultations. “They were anticipating it.”
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press