"Warfare is the art of deceit." — Sun-Tzu
The world is now paying a frightful price for a historical accident. It is this: a highly disruptive and novel virus happened to emerge first in China, a high-tech surveillance state that, despite the experience of SARS, remains allergic to the truth and fearful of transparency.
Compounding the cost to humanity is China’s influence over the World Health Organization, which has whitewashed its public health analysis and prescriptions at this crucial moment.
Let’s rewind this calamitous falling of dominos.
Faced with the coronavirus threat, Chinese authorities, according to comprehensive reports by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, suppressed whistleblowers, ignored critical evidence and responded so tardily to the outbreak that they moved to compensate for their failures with a draconian lockdown.
“What kind of government is this?” asked one Chinese family after three generations were infected by the virus in early February.
And now China is doing anything it can to deflect blame and highlight the many weaknesses of western democracies. This overwhelming tragedy explains why one city after another from Bergamo to Madrid to New York is now reliving the Wuhan experience with a higher proportion of infections and death rates in their citizens and health-care workers than ever reported by China’s totalitarian state.
At the same time, China’s statistics on the Wuhan outbreak, which portray the state as triumphant, are being viewed with increasing skepticism. New evidence suggests China’s tallies of deaths are unrealistically low, and that it has underreported cases by as much as 43,000 in Wuhan city since February.
All public health data is handled by the Communist Party of China. “With the coverup in December and January we really cannot trust the numbers from the Chinese government without more credible and solid evidence to verify,” Ho-fung Hung, a professor in political economy at Johns Hopkins University told the Guardian.
The same story of secrecy and chronic under-reporting marred China’s African swine fever outbreak, which became a livestock holocaust in 2019. A quarter of the world’s hog population was killed.
Had a dictatorial regime like China’s, therefore, not overseen ground zero for COVID-19, the world almost certainly would have had an earlier warning and clearer picture of the threat and how to handle it.
But even now, response is hampered and the catastrophe is compounded, because the World Health Organization led by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has acted more as a diplomatic arm of China’s dictatorship than as a dispassionate professional agency sworn to protect global public health.
Not only did Ghebreyesus decline to declare a global emergency in late January when the facts warranted one, but he has repeatedly praised China’s draconian lockdowns as a global model for containment. This despite the fact they were a direct product of the state’s earlier failure to take the outbreak seriously — and many of the world’s governments lacked the political culture and military muscle to enact similar measures.
Ghebreyesus, who once tried to appoint the dictator Robert Mugabe as a “goodwill ambassador,” has also denied that Iran, an ally of China, has minimized its death rates from COVID-19. More importantly Ghebreyesus failed to put an investigative team on the ground in January because China didn’t want one. A WHO delegation didn’t show up till Feb. 14.
The WHO’s subsequent Feb. 28 report offered no warnings about the threat to nursing homes and downplayed infections among medical workers. Tellingly it contained not one critical word about China’s botched response to the outbreak that directly led to a global pandemic.
Instead the report made this heroic claim: “In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” Even prior to the report Ghebreyesus praised China for essentially confining millions of people to their crowded homes for two months, a measure that created its own set of problems, namely the increased spread of the virus in cramped family quarters.
That prompted even more harsh measures as teams of health officials dragged hapless citizens from their homes in order to quarantine them in centres, stadiums and hotels.
Readers might wonder why the WHO, in the interests of honesty, didn’t highlight any long-term problems with such a strategy.
Nor did the report mention that other nations such as Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea had followed less oppressive and nuanced measures with good results.
On the internet, more than a half a million citizens have called for WHO director’s resignation. Even Japan’s deputy prime minister Taro Aso has denigrated WHO’s alleged political neutrality.
“A lot of people believe its name should be changed to CHO, or “Chinese Health Organization,” said Aso. In damning summation of WHO’s performance, the U.S. Council on Foreign Affairs recently wrote: “The WHO’s weak response to China’s mishandling of the COVID- 19 outbreak has laundered China’s image at the expense of the WHO’s credibility.”
To say “mishandling” is to put it lightly.
As the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other publications have thoroughly documented, China bungled the outbreak from the very beginning, just as political leaders have repeated these similar mistakes in Italy, Spain, Russia, Mexico, Brazil and the United States.
But China’s coverup turned what should have been a containable local outbreak into a global pandemic with far reaching political and economic implications.
Seven deadly failures
Here’s what China’s regime botched over a two-month period.
1. The nation’s disease identification system failed.
After the 2002 SARS debacle in which the state suppressed important data, China set up an early infectious disease system to make sure another SARS incident wouldn’t catch the world by surprise. The system was supposed to transmit daily data from hospitals to health officials in Beijing trained to recognize the emergence of new diseases.
Moreover, global disease experts had warned that the likelihood of another coronavirus jumping species was high due to ecological changes occurring in China.
But George Gao, the director of China’s Centre for Disease Control, was so confident about this system he vowed last year that another “SARS incident will not recur” because “we can block the virus when it appears.”
That didn’t happen because as the New York Times reports, “hospitals deferred to local health officials who, over a political aversion to sharing bad news, withheld information about cases from the national reporting system.”
Although the first cases of a strange viral pneumonia appeared as early as Dec. 1, political bosses didn’t officially report them until Jan. 3. By then the disease had already hospitalized at least 41 people and infected health-care workers.
In a Washington Post opinion piece, political scientist Dali Yang at the University of Chicago concluded, “The infectious diseases sentinel system only works if the hospitals and local health administrations actively engage with it and contribute to the information. In Wuhan, the system failed, monumentally.”
2. Authorities ignored bad news.
For nearly a month, Chinese authorities ignored evidence of human-to-human spread of a SARS-like virus in Wuhan city.
In early- and mid-December several hospitals in Wuhan city began to handle a series of patients with viral pneumonia. Many had frequented a popular seafood market, and many cases appeared in the same family.
By the end of the month, two hospitals had quarantined medical staff infected by the virus. When Dr. Ai Fen warned staff at Wuhan central hospital to wear masks, she was criticized by hospital superiors for “spreading rumours.”
3. Authorities silenced doctors and denied reality.
For several weeks the Chinese state suppressed at least eight medical whistleblowers and critics.
The most widely known case was Dr. Li Wenliang. On Dec. 30, the 33-year-old ophthalmologist wrote to a group of medical colleagues on a WeChat group (China’s Facebook) warning that seven cases of a SARS-like pneumonia had been confirmed. The next day the Chinese state accused the doctor of “illegal behaviour” by publishing an “untrue discourse” that had “severely disrupted social order.”
The very next day the state broadcaster CCTV pronounced, “Some netizens have posted information on the internet without verification, shared false information and created adverse social impact.... Police are reminding everyone that cyberspace is not beyond the law.... Acts like this will not be tolerated.”
Before Dr. Li Wenliang died of COVID-19, he told the New York Times, “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.” The World Health Organization tweeted that it was “saddened” by Li’s death, but later deleted the post. Meanwhile the Chinese state scrubbed any messages about Li’s death from the internet.
4. The regime delayed publicly identifying the virus.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology apparently identified the virus on Jan. 2 but that information wasn’t made public. On Jan. 5, a Shanghai researcher said he had identified the agent as a new coronavirus that spread via the respiratory tract. He recommended prevention and control measures but that didn’t happen.
Chinese authorities didn’t publicly confirm the identity of the new coronavirus until Jan. 9, two days after the Wall Street Journal revealed it.
“We had to wait for policymakers to announce it publicly,” explained China’s disease control director George Gao to Science. “You don’t want the public to panic, right? And no one in any country could have predicted that the virus would cause a pandemic. This is the first non-influenza pandemic ever.”
The Chinese did not share the genome of the virus, critical for making tests, until Jan. 12.
5. Local authorities hid or minimized the contagiousness of the virus.
In early January, Wuhan officials continually downplayed the virus and limited the number of cases reported using narrow criteria. A person who was sick but hadn’t visited the wet market was not considered a case. Officials also demanded that cases only be reported to superiors and omit the term “viral pneumonia.” At the same time officials minimized the threat and denied that the virus could spread from person to person.
“We knew then that the government was lying,” one local doctor told the Wall Street Journal. “But we don’t know why they needed to lie. Maybe they thought it could be controlled.”
Even after a WHO official admitted the disease could be spread person to person on Jan. 15, China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said “the risk of human to human transmission is low.”
6. Beijing delayed international oversight.
Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and WHO offered to send teams to help and observe the outbreak in January.
That would have provided the world with timely and critical information. But President Xi offered no such invitations. Experts suspect the dictator didn’t want to admit that China needed help. They also suspect that authorities didn’t want foreigners to learn about the number of health-care workers infected or the fact that the seafood market had been closed without testing animals or market workers.
On Jan. 29, the WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Xi’s aggressive measures locking down the province of Hubei. A WHO team didn’t arrive in China until Feb. 14, but only a few select members were allowed to enter Wuhan city.
The highly positive Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease released on Feb. 28 turned a blind eye to China’s failings, including the attacks on Dr. Li Wenliang and the failure of the infectious disease identification system. The report, which did finally include detailed critical information about the nature of the contagion, offered only praise for the state: “China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic.”
7. At the very top, a failure of leadership.
According to the Wall Street Journal, President Xi led the response to the outbreak and was, like most political leaders including Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, slow to comprehend the gravity of the situation.
“He was leading the epidemic response when Wuhan went ahead with New Year celebrations despite the risk of wider infections. He was also leading the response when authorities let some five million people leave Wuhan without screening, and when they waited until Jan. 20 to announce the virus was spreading between humans,” noted the Wall Street Journal.
Xi later told party faithful in February that the state “acted swiftly and cohesively since the beginning.”
China’s embassy in Ottawa has offered a new version of this heroic story. “It is also under the leadership of the CPC [Communist Party of China] that the Chinese nation united as one and speedily fought against COVID-19, buying precious time for the global response.”
The mistakes made by Chinese authorities were so stark and damning, recently wrote several scholars, that the outbreak could resonate as loudly as Chernobyl. The Soviet Union’s lies about that disaster played a key role in unravelling that communist state, something that President Xi’s regime deeply fears.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese government has concluded the outbreak poses “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.” And so it is forging a new narrative about the pandemic along with a concerted campaign to strengthen its global influence with a wave of misinformation.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, has accused China of engaging in a geopolitical “struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity.’”
Trying to portray itself as a benevolent global leader in the fight against COVID-19, China has sent medical equipment to beleaguered European nations.
But the Netherlands reported that the masks it received were defective while Spain discovered China’s testing kits had an accuracy rate of 30 per cent. Turkish and Czech Republic authorities also had complaints.
To redirect blame for what Foreign Affairs magazine calls “the greatest global health catastrophe of our time,” China’s communist party has aggressively promoted conspiracy theories.
As the outbreak still raged in Wuhan city, Chinese state propaganda suggested that the virus escaped from an American military lab and was carried to China by American athletes who took part in a military sports competition tournament in Wuhan.
In March, Chinese state media cast blame farther afield by suggesting that COVID-19 started in Italy. Chinese businessmen and tourists supposedly played no role in seeding the contagion as they poured through Milan.
It should be emphasized that no respected epidemiologist has provided evidence that this novel virus emerged anywhere but central China where a well-documented reservoir of coronaviruses exists in bats. The Chinese state has also attacked the foreign media and has expelled most of its representatives since the outbreak.
On Feb. 3 the Wall Street Journal ran a column headlined “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”
The column’s author Walter Russell Mead made two valid points: China cannot hide the reality “that the decisions that allowed the epidemic to spread as far and as fast as it did were all made in Wuhan and Beijing.”
And China’s financial markets were in deep trouble prior to the outbreak due to corruption, “a towering property bubble, and vast industrial overcapacity.”
China’s response was to immediately eject the paper’s reporters from China. It has subsequently expelled five other news organizations, including the New York Times.
On March 14 the famous Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who lives in Madrid, wrote an innocent column about the pandemic entitled “A Return to the Middle Ages.”
At that point COVID-19 had begun to overwhelm that city’s hospitals, resulting in thousands of deaths.
Llosa accurately noted that the virus first erupted in the city of Wuhan in central China, and stated that coverups by China’s dictatorship had accelerated the spread of the virus globally.
“None of this could have happened in the world if the People’s Republic of China was a free country and democracy rather than a dictatorship,” observed the Nobel laureate.
China’s Peruvian embassy promptly accused Llosa of spreading “evil comments filled with prejudice” and added that it was inaccurate to say the virus originated in China.
Meanwhile Llosa’s books immediately disappeared from online booksellers in China.
Unfortunately, China cannot erase the pandemic’s toll it has unleashed on the world or its reckless record of negligence.