The coronavirus pandemic might have been avoided and thousands of lives saved if China had a free press, according to a prominent campaign group.
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres) has used evidence from various studies and reviewed events in the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan during December and January to make its case.
China ranks 177 out of 180 on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. The ruling Communist Party controls and censors news media in the country.
RSF claims that if it didn’t, “the Chinese media would have informed the public much earlier of the seriousness of the epidemic, saving thousands of lives and possibly avoiding the current pandemic”.
Firstly, it points to censorship of the internet and media as having prevented press from reporting on a prescient coronavirus simulation ran on 18 October 2019 by the John Hopkins Center for Health Security in the US.
The exercise called Event 201, which ran in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, produced a model that resulted in 65m fictional deaths.
RSF says the public and Chinese authorities “would have undoubtedly been interested” in the exercise and its results if it could have been reported.
(The John Hopkins Center has said the inputs it used for modelling the potential impact of its fictional virus are “not similar” to Covid-19 and it does not now predict the real pandemic will cause 65m deaths).
RSF also claims that Chinese authorities hid the fact that early initial cases of coronavirus were linked to the Huanan fish market in Wuhan.
Had they not done so, and informed the media, RSF says the public “would have stopped visiting this place long before its official closure on 1 January”.
The press freedom group also claims that “severe penalties” for journalists’ sources, which can include heavy prison terms, played a part in keeping new and crucial information about the outbreak out of the spotlight.
They say without these deterrents, the head of gastroenterology at Wuhan City Hospital, Dr Lu Xiaohong, would have alerted the media about the virus transmitting between humans, forcing the authorities to act.
This eventually happened three weeks after the hospital first began hearing of cases of medical staff being infected on 25 Decemeber 2019.
What’s more, RSF claims that if the press had been able to “freely relay” information from medical staff who blew the whistle about the “SARS-like coronavirus” on 30 December, “the public would have realised the danger and put pressure on the authorities” to act to limit its spread.
When China officially alerted the World Health Organisation about the epidemic on 31 December, it also censored keywords referring to the outbreak on social network We Chat which has 1bn active users in China.
Had it not done so, RSF claims journalists would have been able to use the platform “to broadcast reports and precautionary advice contributing to better compliance with the rules recommended by the health authorities”.
The first case of a coronavirus infection outside of China – a tourist from Wuhan – was reported in Thailand on 13 January.
RSF claims: “If the international media had had full access to information held by the Chinese authorities on the scale of the epidemic before January 13th, it is likely that the international community would have taken stock of the crisis and better anticipated it, reducing the risk of the epidemic spreading outside China and possibly avoiding its transformation into a pandemic.”
Picture: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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