China eventually acknowledged the crisis and permitted an advance team from the WHO to enter the country in mid-February.
Once the world emerges from the Coronavirus pandemic crisis, answers should be demanded from China and the World Health Organisation (WHO), whose cavalier attitude in the initial stages of the virus’s spread resulted in the global tragedy, with more than 30,000 lives lost across several countries. China needs to tell the world why it brazenly ignored early warnings from one of its doctors?, and the WHO as to why it played along with China and refused to strongly flag concerns when it ought to have?
“If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”
The outbreak was first identified in Wuhan, China, as early as in December 2019. A young ophthalmologist, Dr Li Wenliang, attached with the Central Hospital in the city, had shared information with a bunch of his colleagues about a worrisome disease that was affecting certain patients. The virus had then not been identified. Dr Li warned them of SARS-like symptoms the patients were showing and suggested that strict measures be adopted to prevent the spread of contamination.
When the matter was brought to the attention of his seniors, all hell broke loose. Instead of acting on the information and taking steps to prevent the unknown disease’s spread, the hospital authorities swooped down on Dr Li and asked him to pen a letter of self-criticism for trying to cause panic. The local police also came calling late in the night. The state machinery was used to bring him back on track. It accused Dr Li of spreading “false information” and “Gravely disturbing social order”. He was asked to respond in the affirmative to questions like “Can you stop the illegal behaviour?” and “Do you realise you’ll be punished if you don’t follow this instruction?” The authorities, having got the required answers, closed the document with a seal that carried his thumbprint impression.
Sadly, Dr Li himself died later, a victim of the pandemic. In an interview to a US-based daily, he had said, “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”
Wuhan was preparing for its annual mass banquet to be held on January 18, 2020, and the organisers were preparing to break a world record for the largest number of dishes served. Thus, three weeks prior to the banquet, the authorities had been made aware of the virus spreading in the city. Perhaps because they did not want the event to be impacted, they decided to downplay the Corona crisis. By the time Beijing grasped the inevitable, it was too late. The micro-organism had begun to spread in the city’s population with lightning speed and wreak havoc. Some Western publications published reports that the Chinese authorities had deliberately downplayed the crisis — indeed, they sought to even suppress it — because they feared its adverse impact on China’s economy. The level of media control ensured that the matter was not widely publicised, which could have alerted the general population about the tragedy that awaited them.
Towards the end of January 2020, the Coronavirus cases worldwide had gone up to nearly 8,000, having spread from Wuhan and transmitted to thousands of people across the globe. The death figures for Wuhan then had been officially put at 170, though most experts believed it must have been far more, given the failure of the authorities to crack down on the matter and the huge shortage of medical testing kits. Nonetheless, there was no suppressing the news now, which was getting from bad to worse. China eventually acknowledged the crisis and permitted an advance team from the WHO to enter the country in mid-February.
“WHO advises against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China based on the information currently available on this event.”
If the Chinese response in the early but critical stages was one of denial and then of suppression — which is characteristic of that country — the WHO’s conduct was nothing short of shocking. It needs to share some blame for the tragedy that has now engulfed the world. Even as the virus was spreading through Wuhan, WDO’s director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was busy complimenting Beijing for its “Transparency”. He was to later said that China’s “Co-ordinated and comprehensive approach” had saved thousands of people from infection.
While it is true that China’s subsequent though belated actions did control the spread of the virus — it even laid down the punishment of three to seven years for violating prevention and control measures — the damage had been done. The WHO hasn’t said one critical word on the criminal delay on China’s part. On the other hand, in the early stages, it too was complacent and content with praising China’s efforts. In a statement that it put out, the WHO said that it had received “Further detailed information…” about the outbreak and was “Reassured of the quality of the ongoing investigations and the response measures implemented in Wuhan…” The reassurance may have come at a time when the death toll was still very small, but the WHO was readily accepting China’s claim that it was fully transparent in dealing with the issue, despite knowing how the Chinese authorities clamp down on information about issues that are negative to their image. It expressed satisfaction over the “Quality of the ongoing investigations and the response measures implemented in Wuhan…”
The WHO, further giving a glowing reference to the Chinese efforts, said that China had shared the genetic sequence of the “Novel Coronavirus on January 12, which will be of great importance for other countries to use in developing specific diagnostic kits”. (Incidentally, according to some media reports, the kits and face masks it despatched recently to some countries afflicted by the virus outbreak, were found grossly defective and the orders placed by these nations with China were cancelled.)
Unbelievably, the health organisation also stated that there was no “Clear evidence of human to human transmission”. This too, in the midst of January 2020, when the world was waking up the crisis and understanding that the disease could be infectious. The WHO also seemed satisfied that the virus outbreak had not gone beyond Wuhan to other Chinese cities and villages.
Thereafter, the WHO, which is an independent body under the aegis of the United Nations, bought China’s stories lock, stock and barrel. In a statement, it said, “Based on the information provided by national authorities (of China), WHO’s recommendations on public health measures and surveillance for novel Coronaviruses apply.” More importantly, it added, much to China’s delight, the following: “WHO does not recommend any specific health measures for travellers. In case of symptoms suggestive of respiratory illness either during or after travel, travellers are encouraged to seek medical attention and share travel history with their healthcare provider. Travel guidance has been updated.”
And then came what many experts consider as the ultimate blunder, for which the world has had to pay (and continues to pay) a very heavy price: “WHO advises against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China based on the information currently available on this event.”
One only hopes that the WHO someday soon admits the errors it made. As for China, it is futile to expect it to own up for the latest Made in China disaster.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.