As the deadly coronavirus began to spread, Beijing wasted the most critical resource to fight it: trust.
FEBRUARY 15, 2020, 4:48 PM
The novel coronavirus epidemic has reached a critical juncture. Steps taken over the next few days, particularly by Beijing’s leadership, will decide the fate of the virus and whether it spreads internationally to become a genuine pandemic. Time is short for the Chinese government to prevent a catastrophe.
Are China’s official reports, including claims that its control efforts are succeeding and the epidemic will soon peak, credible? Omens look bad. Once praised by the World Health Organization (WHO) and scientists worldwide for its quick, transparent response to the newly named COVID-19, China now faces international vilification and potential domestic unrest as it blunders through continued cover-ups, lies, and repression that have already failed to stop the virus and may well be fanning the flames of its spread.
Since the epidemic came to the world’s attention in early January it has been marked by startling moments when China’s health authorities announced dramatic surges in apparent cases of the disease, none more surprising than the sudden Feb. 12 adjustment that saw case numbers in Hubei province swell by 14,840 in a single day, pushing the national total to 59,804 cases. The adjustment, according to government officials, was due to a widening definition of the disease for just one place, Hubei Province, while authorities continue to limit their COVID-19 case descriptions elsewhere in China by a prior approach, counting smaller numbers.
The pneumonia death last week of China’s real epidemic hero, the ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, has revealed the ugliest side of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its terrible effort to rewrite the history of a seemingly out-of-control epidemic. Li treated patients in December in Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, who looked like SARS cases, he told colleagues on Dec. 30 via a doctors’ social media chatroom. Days later, for the so-called crime of rumor mongering, Li and seven other physicians were brought before China’s security police and compelled to sign a document admitting to “spreading lies.” For days, Wuhan authorities sought to stifle Li’s voice, but even after he caught the virus while treating his patients and was confined to an intensive care unit bed, he continued to sound epidemic alarms on the BBC World Service. On Feb. 6, the once-robust 34-year-old physician died. Li’s death opened the gates of political rage across China, sparking an unprecedented outpouring of grief and outrage, denouncing the government cover-up.