The coronavirus spread as China treated warnings like fake news

The coronavirus spread as China treated warnings like fake news

Today Vox published a story pointing out that China hid facts about the coronavirus outbreak and outright lied about what was happening for weeks:

On December 31, when China first announced the outbreak of a mysterious pneumonia, officials there emphasized a few things. Most of the patients had been to a food market in Wuhan, the city that’s still the epicenter of the outbreak. There was also “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission, meaning the virus wasn’t yet spreading from one person to another but instead, they suggested, from an animal to humans. And the earliest case had shown symptoms only recently — on December 12…

A study published on January 24 in The Lancet showed that in the first days of the outbreak, by January 2, more than a third of patients had no connection with the Wuhan food market, including the outbreak’s index (or first) case. What’s more, that person became ill on December 1, nearly two weeks earlier than Wuhan health authorities had said of the first case.

This means the virus could have been moving through Wuhan as early as October, Daniel Lucey, an infectious diseases physician and adjunct professor of infectious diseases at Georgetown University Medical Center, told Vox.

The Lancet paper also reported that the first person who died from the virus, on January 9, passed it along to his wife a week prior. Similarly, another recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine also shows there were already seven health care workers infected by January 11.

“This is the smoking-gun evidence of human-to-human transmission,” Yanzhong Huang, a China expert and senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Vox. “But the public was not kept informed about this situation until January 18,” said Huang. Instead, “People were still told there was no strong evidence of human-to-human transmission.”


At a time when many on the left are eager to see social media companies crack down on “fake news,” with some even suggesting the government could push them to do so, it’s instructive to notice that China treated a warning about the virus as fake news and threatened the doctor who was trying to get the word out.

In the middle of the night, officials from the health authority in the central city of Wuhan summoned Dr. Li, demanding to know why he had shared the information. Three days later, the police compelled him to sign a statement that his warning constituted “illegal behavior.”…

A reconstruction of the crucial seven weeks between the appearance of the first symptoms in early December and the government’s decision to lock down the city, based on two dozen interviews with Wuhan residents, doctors and officials, on government statements and on Chinese media reports, points to decisions that delayed a concerted public health offensive.

In those weeks, the authorities silenced doctors and others for raising red flags. They played down the dangers to the public, leaving the city’s 11 million residents unaware they should protect themselves. They closed a food market where the virus was believed to have started, but didn’t broadly curb the wildlife trade.


Dr. Li Wenliang died last week, having contracted the virus from a patient he was treating. Before his death, he criticized the government’s lack of transparency:

“If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,” Dr. Li told The Times. “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”…

“I think a healthy society should not have just one voice,” he recently told Caixin, a Chinese magazine that has reported aggressively on the epidemic.

Even a Chinese judge criticized the government’s treatment of Dr. Li and decision to crack down on chatroom “rumors” saying people might have been better off if they’d believed the rumors:

“It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumour’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitisation measures, and avoid the wild animal market,” the judge said, referring to a market believed to be the source of the outbreak in Wuhan…

“If rumours are proved [to be true] time after time, then the people will naturally choose to believe them in times of a breaking event,” it said.

“To punish any information not totally accurate is neither legally necessary nor technically possible.


This Chinese judge seems to have a better handle on freedom of speech than some American progressives. Of course actual fake news doesn’t help anyone in a crisis, but once you’ve put the government (or companies answering to the government) in charge of deciding what news is fake, you’re going to wind up with a situation like this where “rumors” of a catastrophe are silenced despite the fact that the rumors are essentially true.

More than 900 people have died from the virus so far, with 97 of those deaths on Sunday alone.

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