Lies and cover-ups resulted in failed containment.
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.
This year's flu virus is still slated to be a bigger threat.
It's believed that Chinese officials have not exactly been forthcoming about the true extent and severity of the coronavirus, a respiratory illness whose death toll in mainland China has now exceeded that of S.A.R.S. The Chinese foreign ministry has criticized the U.S.'s response of temporarily banning foreign individuals who had traveled in China from entering the country. Chinese officials initially said that U.S. health officials "inappropriately overreacted" and spread unnecessary fear. However, on Monday (February 3) China's elite Politburo Standing Committee admitted that there were "shortcomings and difficulties in the response to the epidemic," according to China's Xinhua news agency. The government said it "urgently" needed medical supplies, such as protective suits and masks.
When the World Health Organization (W.H.O) declared the virus a "public health emergency of international concern," they said its organization "continues to have confidence in China's capacity to control the outbreak." They stated that their concern is about the virus' potential to reach countries with poor health care. In such an environment, the disease could spread rapidly, "infecting millions of people and killing thousands," according to The New York Times.
With over 20,000 cases reported in China and 170 more reported in over 25 other countries, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) has been rapidly updating their findings on the respiratory disease. 11 cases have been confirmed in the U.S. (including 3 in California, 2 in Illinois, 1 in Arizona, 1 in Massachusetts, and 1 in Washington). More cases are currently under review. As of this writing, three New York cases have been sent to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Laboratory in Atlanta, which is currently the only facility that can confirm a case of coronavirus. The New York City health commissioner has called the virus's presence in the city "inevitable."
But what does that really mean?
The coronavirus is distinct in a few ways, originating in animals in Wuhan, China but demonstrating the ability to spread from person to person once someone is infected. Symptoms present as common flu symptoms, including fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, aching muscles, and fatigue. There have been indications to suggest that individuals infected with the coronavirus are contagious before they show symptoms, but that has not been widely confirmed.
Out of over 20,000 confirmed cases spread across more than two dozen countries, there have been fewer than 500 deaths, with two deaths occurring outside of China so far. Most people infected have been elderly or those with compromised immune systems, and there have been full recoveries from the virus.
In fact, the first American patient confirmed to have the coronavirus has been released from the hospital and is staying in isolation in his home. "I am at home and continuing to get better," the nameless man said in a statement, "I ask that the media please respect my privacy and my desire not to be in the public eye. I would like to thank the doctors, nurses, and entire team at Providence who cared for me. I appreciate all of the concern expressed by members of the public, and I look forward to returning to my normal life."
The flu is more dangerous.
Meanwhile, public health officials underline that the coronavirus presents a low health risk to Americans. More dangerous is influenza B, or the common flu. The C.D.C. reports that 68 children have died of the flu this year, along with an estimated 10,000 adults! Todd Ellerin, the director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health in Massachusetts, told Mother Jones that the flu is "massively outstripping" the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. He added in a a blog post for Harvard Medical School, "In the US, the average person is at extremely low risk of catching this novel coronavirus. This winter, in fact, we are much more likely to get influenza B—the flu—than any other virus: one in 10 people have influenza each flu season."