When dealing with COVID-19 in its early stages time was of the utmost essence. Nevertheless, the Chinese government waited for almost seven days until it communicated the potential threat the virus posed to the public.
China’s Silence as the Virus Spread
From January 14, China knew that there was a possibility of a pandemic. However, it was only on January 20 that Chinese leader Xi Jinping made the news public. During this period, however, a ceremony was held in Wuhan for tens of thousands of people, while millions of others traveled across the region to prepare for New Year’s celebrations. Unsurprisingly, an estimated 3,000 people got infected that week.
China’s attempt to walk the tightrope between the need to warn the public and the need to avoid panic or international embarrassment set the stage for a pandemic that has now infected nearly two and a half million people and killed almost 159,000 people worldwide.
China’s CDC Had a Two Week Lag Time Listing Cases
In addition to the six-day delay, it is also noticeable that China’s national disease control agency did not register any new infection cases for two weeks in January. Moreover, hundreds of patients went to hospitals across the country from January 5 to 17. What should have been another red flag was ignored for reasons such as China’s strict information control, bureaucratic obstacles, and reluctance to relay bad news up the chain of command.
In fact, in needed a case of infection outside of China, on January 13 in Thailand, to convince Beijing’s leadership that it was dealing with a possible pandemic. The head of the National Health Service in China, Ma Xiaowei, had assessed the situation in China as bleak on January 14 when he said that the epidemic situation was “serious and complex” and the “most serious challenge since SARS in 2003”.
A section of a memorandum looks at the case in Thailand and states that the situation has “changed significantly” because of the possible spread of the virus abroad. “All local agencies need to prepare for and respond to a pandemic,” it read.
The Associated Press published and verified the information, which is said to come from an anonymous source in the Chinese healthcare sector. AP also has a 63-page “not for publication” paper that contains instructions from the health authority to the provincial authorities.
By Mid-January China Was Still Downplaying COVID-19
Nonetheless, government officials continued to downplay the dangers. Li Qun of the epidemic control agency stated on national TV on January 15 that the risk of continued human-to-human transmission was “insignificant.” Only a day later, scientists in Wuhan and elsewhere were given test equipment and the go-ahead to identify new cases of infection.
President Xi first addressed the crisis publicly on January 20, when he said that the outbreak should be “taken seriously” while a leading Chinese epidemiologist, Zhong Nanshan, finally announced that people could infect each other. By then, however, it had been too late as the virus had spread across the border, which laid the foundation for the arguably most significant pandemic since 1917.
China FM Lijian: Criticisms of China are ‘Groundless’
Nevertheless, the Chinese government insists that it has kept nothing under the cover from the start and immediately informed the World Health Organization. Only on Thursday, China’s Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian stated during a press conference that allegations of a cover-up or lack of transparency were “groundless.”
While it remains idle to discuss a “what if” scenario, the question remains: how many lives could have been saved if China had acted six days earlier and contained the virus? It is hard to argue that it would not have saved many lives, however. Moreover, and the fallout is hard to quantify at this stage, the damage the world economy has taken and will take in months to come are also the product of only six days. Six days that could have made a difference – and will now for years to come.