One year ago: Wuhan went from calm to panic as China clamped down on reporters

Yesterday an independent panel set up by the World Health Organization concluded that China and the WHO itself had failed to act quickly enough to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In a report issued to the media Monday, the panel led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said there were “lost opportunities” to adopt basic public health measures as early as possible.

“What is clear to the panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January,” it said.

Exactly one year ago today, a Chinese journalist traveled to Wuhan to report about the outbreak of a new pneumonia. He quickly found that police were preventing any reporting about the Wuhan wet market or what was happening inside local hospitals. He filmed what he could anyway, using his cell phone to record his frequent interactions with police. The reporter could never publish his video in China. In fact, he was warned by his boss to follow the party line. Eventually, he gave his video to Al Jazeera which published it yesterday as part of a 50-minute long investigative report.

The report is titled “3 Days That Stopped the World” and uses alternate names for two journalists who tell their story. What they recorded from Jan. 19 to Jan. 22 was the three days before Wuhan went into lockdown. At first, there was a clear lack of concern:

“When I arrive, people seem to have no fear or concern about the virus at all. Some haven’t even heard about it,” Jun wrote in his diary.

“A stall owner asks me to take off my mask. He says ‘You are obviously an over-worried outsider. Everything is fine here,’” Jun continued.

But when Jun first went to the Seafood wet market police detained him for an hour and told him he didn’t have permission to take photos without first speaking to the Wuhan PR department, which the video notes is often called the propaganda department. Jun did as he was told and the PR department said he had the right to take photos and report. However, he returned to the market two more times and both times he was immediately hassled and shut down by police who said they were told no one was allowed to film anything. You have rights in theory in China but ultimately you do what the police tell you or else.

“I can’t report with freedom. As long as the government institutions are involved, I am constantly followed and spied on,” Jun wrote in his diary.

“Information about the outbreak is hidden in secrecy and very difficult to get.”

Jun continued, writing: “During the three days of my reporting in Wuhan, I was constantly stopped by the police and hospital personnel. So, I realised how serious the virus is and how sensitive and difficult it is to report this topic. It’s totally beyond my imagination.”

Fearing the same treatment, Jun secretly filmed inside local hospitals by pretending to be a patient with a fever. But even then, he couldn’t be admitted to the isolation ward unless his diagnosis was confirmed by x-rays of his lungs. There were no coronavirus tests available at the time. When he went to the place where x-rays were being taken, he found a long line of nervous people.

Near the end of this clip, Jun is back at the hospital which is now completely dedicated to COVID patients. But it is closed off because there are no beds. A woman arrives were her elderly father. She had been sent there from another hospital, but the guards won’t let her in.

By the time Wuhan is eventually locked down it is way too late. Many people have fled the city and some even talk on social media about taking fever medication to lower their temperatures so they can travel. It’s far too late to stop the spread to other parts of China and the world.

Here’s the full video. It really is amazing to think how much the world has changed in the past year.