The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) initial coverup of the coronavirus outbreak in the central city of Wuhan facilitated the disease’s spread across China and the world, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and epidemics expert says.
Laurie Garrett, who has covered epidemics around the world, including the SARS outbreak of 2002–2003 that originated from China, said the regime’s suppression of vital information during the early days of the outbreak in December 2019 into January of this year meant that a critical window of opportunity to contain the spread of the virus was lost.
“The time to respond and stop an outbreak is when it’s only 20 cases, only 40 cases,” Garrett said during a recent interview on The Epoch Times’ “American Thought Leaders” program.
“By the time it’s a few hundred cases, you lost—it’s over. You’re now dealing with an epidemic and your whole strategy of outbreak control has been defeated, and it’s defeated because of your own … unwillingness to take seriously the first seemingly very small number of cases.”
For almost three weeks after Wuhan health authorities first confirmed the outbreak on Dec. 31, 2019, the number of confirmed cases remained at around a few dozen, while officials maintained that there was “no obvious evidence for human-to-human transmission” and the outbreak was “preventable and controllable.”
Health officials only confirmed human-to-human transmission of the virus on Jan. 20. The same day, official infection figures soared almost five-fold to nearly 200 cases. Infections within China have since ballooned to the tens of thousands, with more than 2,000 deaths, while the disease has spread to several dozen countries.
On Jan. 23, officials placed Wuhan under an unprecedented lockdown—but not before 5 million residents had left the city to travel over the Lunar New Year holiday, or to escape the lockdown. Authorities had announced the impending restrictions the day before.
“That coverup has put the people of China at risk and put the whole world at risk,” Garrett said.
She said there was much misinformation about the virus coming out of China, some of it being the CCP “trying to change the narrative and playing games with the information, and some of it is just innocent error.”
“We know that the official numbers coming out are not accurate,” she said, adding that news about crematoriums in Wuhan struggling to cope with a surge of dead bodies suggests that the “numbers are enormous.”
The communist regime’s tightening crackdown on citizens who share information about the virus has also contributed to the difficulty in seeing the true picture of what’s happening in the country, according to Garrett.
The recent death of whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang, who was among eight “rumormongers” reprimanded by local police for sharing information about the outbreak in December, ignited a firestorm of anger from Chinese social media users, who lamented his death from the virus, which he contracted while treating a patient.
Netizens blamed the Chinese regime, which tried to suppress the doctor’s early warnings, for his death.
“That’s the implication all of Li Wenliang’s mourners have taken from his martyrdom—that he was killed by the Party, essentially,” Garrett said.
The regime has since punished hundreds of Chinese social media users for “spreading rumors” about the virus, according to a database compiled by Washington-based nonprofit Chinese Human Rights Defenders. Many of the offending posts are about confirmed or suspected cases in the poster’s city or neighborhood.
Meanwhile, a couple of citizen journalists in Wuhan, Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, recently disappeared and are suspected to have been detained by police. They had been regularly posting videos documenting the dire situation in the locked-down city.
“There’s already a sense of the repression—[that] the epidemic’s being used to repress us,” Garrett said.
Much is riding on the CCP’s handling of the crisis, she says.
“If the Party screws this up, the economic and political repercussions are going to be enormous—and many would argue they already did,” she said.
The Plight of Frontline Workers
While Li’s death has cast a spotlight on health workers as casualties in the worsening outbreak, his case is likely the tip of the iceberg. Garrett, who has been a firsthand witness to the grim reality faced by frontline responders to outbreaks, says the experience is like “true hell on earth.”
“The only thing that comes close is being a soldier on a battlefield,” she said.
“You can’t imagine [it] if you’ve never been in an epidemic and you’ve never seen the health care workers on the frontlines. You cannot imagine how stressful it is. … It’s nonstop. If they get four hours of real sleep a day, they’re doing well.”
The Epoch Times has previously reported on burnt-out health care staff working in overwhelmed Wuhan hospitals, coping with the challenges of severe shortages in medical supplies, protective gear, and testing kits.
Meanwhile, China’s National Health Commission, for the first time since the outbreak began, announced on Feb. 14 that at least 1,716 health workers had been infected while treating patients with the virus.
Garrett said the job of health care workers is more difficult because of the lack of a cure or treatment for this disease.
“So you’re just seeing [patients’] bodies doing battle, and you have to stand and watch and hope. Give him some water, some oxygen, and hope that that body will manage to fight the virus off,” she said.
“It’s a terrible thing to see, and it takes a toll on people.”
At the same time, the Chinese regime’s censorship of information about the outbreak adds a unique set of pressures on frontline staff.
“If you tell anybody what you’re going through, you may end up in prison,” Garrett said. “Orders come from mysterious bureaucracies and individuals from the CCP, and all of a sudden you’re in trouble because you didn’t do this procedure or you didn’t fill out that paperwork or what have you.
“That’s very frightening.”