China’s Coverup Of COVID-19 And Why It Is Detrimental

In December 2020, leaked Chinese government documents showed that the Chinese Communist Party and The National Health Commission knew about the following COVID-19 pandemic even before January 14th and still failed to warn the public for six key days. The 117-page report revealed that hundreds of citizens were showing up in hospitals throughout the country in the two weeks prior to January 14th, but The National Health Commission failed to register any cases or address the issue until the first Covid-19 case outside of China was registered in Thailand on January 13th.

On January 14th a teleconference held between the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and The National Health Commission, in order to provide instructions for the new virus had failed to address the desperate need to alert Wuhan authorities or the World Health Organization (WHO). However, the government memo had addressed that the risk of transmission would be higher with the coming Spring celebrations and stated that local authorities should be informed to respond to the pandemic.

During these six days, officials in Wuhan unaware or unauthorized to speak of the current virus held a massive banquet in preparation for the New Lunar Year in the epicenter of the pandemic, allowing millions of travellers through the region. With the president of the Chinese CDC Emergency Centre publicly stating that the risk of transmission between people is low, the public had no access to the private information contained in the January 14th memo, as well as the endemic potential of COVID-19 previously known by the Communist Chinese Party even prior to January 14th. An adequate and timely response from the Communist Chinese Party and health authorities, in which local officials were informed of COVID-19, could have not only saved countless lives but could have also stopped the rapid spread of the virus outside of Wuhan and China as well.

China’s system of stability maintenance has been primarily blamed for the delayed and rocky response to COVID-19. The Stability Maintenance office in China receives more funding than their military and is responsible for maintaining the power and positive image of the Chinese Communist Party by ‘’stabilizing’’ any threats to it. This system targets individuals that try and speak the truth if that truth is something that could hurt the image of the Chinese Communist Party. Even the memo from the 14th of January showed that the directors of the National Health Commission addressed the importance and priority of ‘political considerations and social stability.’’

This was seen clearly when Chinese authorities arrested eight doctors in December 2019 and early January 2020 for speaking out about the coronavirus before government officials. Of these doctors, Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the whistleblowers of COVID-19 who passed away from the disease himself, sent messages to his colleagues on December 30th in 2019, warning them of the dangerous new virus and incentivizing them to wear protective equipment. However, four days later he was forced to sign a letter at the Public Security Bureau stating that he has ‘’severely disturbed the social order’’ by spreading ‘’false’’ information. The death of Dr. Li Wenliang caused by COVID-19 started a movement within China’s net citizens, criticizing the Chinese cover-up of COVID-19 and treatment of Dr. Li Wenliang through various hashtags. However, all of these hashtags were removed by the Chinese government the following day.

This fuelled the already existing fears within doctors and officials to report on the virus, hindering the country’s response even further. The director of the China Studies program at John Hopkins University, Andrew Mertha, stated that ‘’lower-ranking officials had a clear incentive to under-report or to show their superiors that they were under-reporting.’’

The late publishing and sharing of genome sequencing of the COVID-19 by China is of deep concern as well. Reports have shown that the genome sequencing of the virus was completed by several labs by the 2nd of January, however, government officials told the labs to not share it until their approval and even asked them to get rid of their samples of the virus.  The Shanghai laboratory that first shared COVID-19 genome information on January 11th with the world without the permission of Chinese authorities, shut down immediately for rectification. The Chinese government then continued to withhold information for the following weeks, not sharing the fact that the virus can spread between humans at a very rapid rate with the WHO. WHO’s chief of emergencies Dr. Michael Ryan stated at the time that they ‘’need to see the data, it is absolutely important at this point.’’ It was only on the 20th of January that Xi Jinping informed the public of the nature of the virus and called for preventive and containment measures.

In its effort to maintain ‘’social stability,’’ China also refused help from local private charities, churches, and civic groups, as well as help from international experts such as the CDC and WHO. The main aim of the stability maintenance system is to ensure that the Chinese Communist Party is seen as all-powerful and has everything under control, which is why they have refused the help their citizens direly needed, even from within China.  With the sudden rise of quarantine centers throughout China and the draconian measures enforced by local authorities, the lack of cooperation between the people and the government has only created distrust. Many of the quarantine centers didn’t even have medical staff or food on location, aspects in which the local charities could have helped had the government cooperated with them.

With the Chinese Communist Party’s stability maintenance system, it is impossible for health catastrophes such as COVID-19 or SARS in 2003 to be handled timely and adequately. As the system rewards those who cover up any unfavorable information and punishes doctors who try to speak out regarding health challenges, it is only a matter of time before the next outbreak gets a delayed response and leads to another global pandemic. It is imperative that the Chinese Communist Party set its political gains aside, at least for endemic health emergencies, and provide its doctors, officials, and citizens with the tools to confidently report and tackle such issues. The unnecessary death and poor treatment of Dr. Li Wenliang should be recognized by the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and serve as a pledge by the government to improve the treatment of their doctors and citizens. The Chinese government should consider incorporating transparency and openness of information regarding health crises and possibly implement the release of health information through daily briefings by the national health center, such as the ones used in Taiwan.

International actors have also played a part in the continued cover-up of COVID-19 within China. The WHO has praised China for its ‘’openness’’ regarding the outbreak, despite its crackdown on early whistleblowers and journalists, delayed response, information withdrawal, and refusal to cooperate with its local organizations and international experts, the WHO included. The Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom has even praised the ‘’top leadership and transparency they have demonstrated’’ in the handling of the coronavirus. Furthermore, he declared that there is no reason to put any travel or trade restrictions on China and encouraged the world to take ‘’evidence-based’’ solutions instead. These statements and the WHO’s narrative on COVID-19 has been and still is extremely dangerous, as they undermine the current global response to the pandemic and bring support to the Chinese Communist Party’s handling of the outbreak which is heavily flooded with human rights violations, lack of cooperation on a national and international level, and withheld information.

The WHO’s strong lenience towards the Chinese Communist Party is evident in other areas as well, such as their refusal to recognize Taiwan as a member of the World Health Organization. On December 31st, the Taiwan government raised concerns about the situation in Wuhan with the WHO but were ignored in favour of the ‘’non-human transmission’’ claims from China.  Regardless, Taiwan has imposed testing, monitoring, and small quarantine restrictions, and had promoted access to information on the outbreak, resulting in the country’s great COVID-19 response without the use of the draconian measures taken by China.

With the United States being the main funder of the WHO, it is extremely important that the Biden administration asks the WHO to set aside its political views and conduct a thorough and transparent investigation on the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.

Timea Putnoki