The Communist Chinese government delayed for six days before warning its citizens that the coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan had likely become a pandemic, allowing thousands of people to become infected, according to a report on Wednesday.
President Xi Jinping warned the public on Jan. 20 – nearly a week after Chinese officials had privately determined on Jan. 14 that the virus had evolved into a pandemic, the Associated Press reported, citing expert estimates based on infection data.
During those crucial days, more than 3,000 people came down with the coronavirus, as tens of thousands of people attended a mass banquet in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, and millions of Chinese began traveling for Lunar New Year celebrations.
The first case of coronavirus in Wuhan was officially reported on Dec. 31.
The coronavirus outbreak has since surged around the world, infecting more than 2 million people and causing more than 127,000 deaths.
“This is tremendous,” Zuo-Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the AP. “If they took action six days earlier, there would have been much fewer patients and medical facilities would have been sufficient. We might have avoided the collapse of Wuhan’s medical system.”
That nearly weeklong delay came after China’s version of the Centers for Disease Control for two weeks didn’t register any cases from local officials.
Medical staff members wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in ChinaGetty Images
Yet, during that period from Jan. 5 to Jan. 17, hundreds of people were showing up at hospitals in Wuhan and across the country.
The report said it’s unclear whether local officials failed to report the cases or whether government officials didn’t record them. According to other reports, US spy agencies “have concluded that the Chinese government itself does not know the extent of the virus and is as blind as the rest of the world … Midlevel bureaucrats in the city of Wuhan … and elsewhere in China have been lying about infection rates, testing and death counts, fearful that if they report numbers that are too high they will be punished, lose their position or worse.”
But, according to experts interviewed by the AP, it’s clear that Beijing’s bureaucratic hurdles, stranglehold on information, lack of transparency and reluctance to deliver bad news up the chain of command stifled early warnings.
The report noted that eight doctors were punished for “rumor-mongering” – an announcement broadcast on national television on Jan. 2.
“Doctors in Wuhan were afraid,” said Dali Yang, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Chicago. “It was truly intimidation of an entire profession.”
Medical staff members carry a patient into the Jinyintan hospital.AFP via Getty Images
China denied a “cover-up” or “lack of transparency,” according to the AP report, quoting foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian calling the allegations “groundless” last week.
The Chinese Communist Party didn’t fully respond to the possible pandemic and launch a national plan until the first case was reported outside China on Jan. 13 in Thailand.
It then began distributing testing kits, eased the criteria for confirming cases and ordered more screenings for patients – all without notifying the public.