Li Wenliang — the Chinese doctor who first spread alarm about the coronavirus in December of 2019 — died of COVID-19 Feb. 7 this year. Rather than listen to him, Li was detained by the Chinese government for “spreading rumours.” Today, with over 2,000,000 coronavirus cases worldwide, one has to wonder if this would have happened had the Chinese government responded adequately when the virus was first brought to their attention. The facts identify the Chinese government’s faulty disease mitigation policy as partly responsible for the spread of the coronavirus, and their actions were not just inept, but negligent of the danger it posed.
The Chinese government’s failure to initially address coronavirus goes beyond mere denial of the disease’s existence — it involved an active effort to suppress public knowledge until that proved impossible to continue. Throughout January, the Chinese government shut down testing facilities even as they knew that the coronavirus could be transmitted through human contact — the reason being to prevent the disease from disrupting New Year celebrations in Wuhan. Doctors were discouraged from reporting new cases — even as some were warned to protect themselves from it — and by the time the Chinese government engaged in a wholehearted response to the coronavirus on Jan. 23, the virus had already begun to spread around the world.
Even as China began fighting the disease, their government continued to suppress the truth about it — both to their own citizens and to the outside world. The Chinese government lied about the number of cases they had — frequently changing the criteria they used to count cases, in an effort to downplay the virus’ severity and showcase their own efforts to contain it. By concealing valuable data about the coronavirus, Chinese government officials deliberately misled other countries, allowing the virus to spread without communicating their knowledge about its dangerous potential. This, coupled with their failure to quickly contain the outbreak when they first became aware of it, presents a case of negligence in stopping the pandemic. That China’s containment strategies ultimately proved so effective at containing the virus furthers the severity of their negligence — they were wholly capable of a total lockdown to stop the pandemic, and yet they waited when they should’ve acted.
It is clear that the Chinese government bears a portion of the responsibility for the pandemic currently ravaging the world. Of course, their negligence should not excuse that of the leaders of other countries in failing to prepare for the virus, nor should the fault by Chinese policymakers be used to attack the Chinese people or anyone of Asian ethnicity. Either would represent a scapegoating that is in itself irresponsible and overtly racist, but to downplay the Chinese government’s role in catalyzing this crisis would be equally naive.
Acknowledging the Chinese government’s responsibility for the pandemic is pressing, as they continue to deny their culpability through more lies. They are denying that they spread misinformation, their failure to mitigate the virus early and even that the coronavirus began in China. An official spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently had the callousness to support the conspiracy that the coronavirus originated in a United States bioweapons facility. These efforts serve to help China as they leverage the coronavirus pandemic to reshape the global order in their favor — an audacious move to benefit from the crisis that their initial failure to mitigate made into a worldwide problem to begin with.
World leaders need to call out this hypocrisy by the Chinese government, and work to ensure that Beijing changes their approach for the prevention of future pandemics. After all, this is not the first example of the Chinese government mishandling a disease — in 2005, their poor handling of severe acute respiratory syndrome was highlighted by disinformation and a failure to act quickly. Their refusal to provide transparency is dangerous, and unlike in 2005, something needs to be done to address the issue. The Chinese government also needs to improve other aspects of its pandemic prevention strategy, including the legality of wet markets. Those wet markets — where animals are held and slaughtered in unsanitary conditions — are likely to have been where the coronavirus made the jump from animals to humans, and have played the same role for other epidemics, such as SARS. Even the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci has called for their abolition, yet China has made no indication they plan to change anything.
By denying the Chinese government’s culpability in this pandemic, we allow them to avoid making the changes that are needed to handle future outbreaks more effectively. The rest of the world cannot allow history to forget this failure — to do so would ensure that this story is repeated again. This is not to say that the Chinese government is solely to blame for the entire pandemic — they did not create it, and many other countries also failed to mitigate it once it began spreading. However, China’s initial response was a key factor in the disease spreading as far as it has, and we cannot let that fact be forgotten.
Matt Heller is a Viewpoint Writer for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.