As the number of coronavirus cases worldwide rises to nearly 80,000, experts say the renamed COVID-19 is "almost certainly going to be a pandemic," with some saying it already is "in all but name."
But public information about the latest coronavirus, which describes a group of viruses that have crown-like spikes on the surface of the virus, has disseminated slowly considering the novelty of COVID-19. While coronaviruses are common and include SARS and MERS, they commonly cause mild to moderate respiratory infections similar to the common cold. However, COVID-19 is a new form that has caused serious respiratory illness in individuals with compromised immune systems, killing over 2,100 individuals worldwide. That's more than twice the number of deaths caused by SARS and MERS combined.
In China, where the virus originated and the vast majority of cases and nearly all of the casualties have taken place, the government has gone from being commended by the World Health Organization for their swift response to the disease to vilified by the international health community. Despite the government enforcing strict quarantines, the virus has continued to spread. What mistakes were made?
First, the Chinese government's strict media censorship resulted in Chinese citizens remaining unaware of the virus weeks after the government shared the information with the international community. Government officials not only limited the spread of information but downplayed the severity of the virus and its ability to spread from person to person. Writer Youyou Zhou of Quartz details how the doctor who first tried to warn the global community about the dangers of the virus, the late Dr. Li Wenliang, received a warning letter from the Wuhan police. Dr. Wenliang was one of eight doctors who were "reprimanded for [their] illegal activity of publishing false information online." He was forced to sign a statement that admitted he had violated the law and "seriously disrupted social order."
Zhou concludes, "The delayed information disclosure by the government combined with the population migration during the lunar new year caused the virus to spread quickly all over China. By Feb. 13, 1,383 have died from the virus around the world, and all except three took place within mainland China. On the same day, Beijing replaced the top officials of Wuhan and Hubei province with new party officials to contain the outbreak."
Second, when Dr. Wenliang himself was tested to have contracted the virus on January 11, officials should have publicly confirmed that the virus could be transferred from person to person. Instead, they issued straightforward denials that there was "no proof" that human transmission was possible. The Wuhan Health Commission only admitted how quickly the disease was spreading and its severity when confronted with irrefutable proof, with inconsistent numbers given in multiple reprots.
Third, when Dr. Wenliang, age 34, died on February 7 in Wuhan, the Chinese government took steps to suppress news of his death. Once word spread, the Chinese public grieved and expressed widespread frustration and anger at the government's censorship, which had proven to cost people's lives. On China's social media app Weibo, "We want free speech" trended with almost 2 million views before being censored.
Ultimately, the Chinese government's authoritarian censorship, cover-ups, and direct lies to the public resulted in failed containment of the coronavirus at the very outset. Global concerns about the virus have intensified due to doubts about the accuracy of the data released by the Chinese government.
But other global agencies are also being placed under intense scrutiny in regards to their response to the coronavirus. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been criticized for waiting to declare the outbreak a global health emergency.
Now, with a global pandemic "almost certain," government lies and cover ups have irrefutably resulted in an international health risk that may have been preventable if the Chinese government had practiced transparency and put human lives above party lines.