As the novel coronavirus incubated in Wuhan from mid-December to mid-January, the Chinese state made evidently intentional misrepresentations to its people concerning the outbreak, providing false assurances to the population preceding the approach of the Lunar New Year celebrations on Jan. 25. In mid-December, an outbreak of a novel influenza-like illness was traced to workers and customers of the city’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which contained exotic and wild animal species. On Dec. 26, multiple Chinese news outlets released reports of an anonymous laboratory technician who made a startling discovery: The sickness was caused by a new coronavirus that was 87 percent similar to SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, sounded the alarm in an online chatroom on Dec. 30. That night, Wuhan public health authorities solicited information on the emergence of a “pneumonia of unclear cause,” but omitted Li’s discussion about SARS or a novel coronavirus. Li and other medical professionals who tried to disclose the emergence of the virus were suppressed or jailed by the regime. On Jan. 1, the state-run Xinhua News Agency warned, “The police call on all netizens to not fabricate rumors, not spread rumors, not believe rumors.” Four days after Li’s chatroom discussion, officers of the Public Security Bureau forced him to sign a letter acknowledging he had made “false comments,” and that his revelations had “severely disturbed the social order.” Li, who has become something of an underground folk hero in China against chicanery by state officials, ultimately died of the disease. China silenced other doctors raising the alarm, minimizing the danger to the public even as they were bewildered and overwhelmed. State media suppressed information about the virus. Although authorities closed the Wuhan “wet market” at the epicenter of the contagion, they did not take further steps to stop the wildlife trade. By Jan. 22, when the virus had killed just 17 yet had infected more than 570 people, China tightened its suppression of information about the coronavirus that it deemed “alarming,” and further censored criticism of its malfeasance. “Even as cases climbed, officials declared repeatedly that there had likely been no more infections.”
On Dec. 31, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission falsely stated that there was no human-to-human transmission of the disease, which it described as a seasonal flu that was “preventable and controllable.” On Feb. 1, the New York Times reported that “the government’s initial handling of the epidemic allowed the virus to gain a tenacious hold. At critical moments, officials chose to put secrecy and order ahead of openly confronting the growing crisis to avoid public alarm and political embarrassment.”
Importantly, China failed to expeditiously share information with the World Health Organization (WHO) on the novel coronavirus. For example, China waited until Feb. 14, nearly two months into the crisis, before it disclosed that 1,700 healthcare workers were infected. Such information on the vulnerability of medical workers is essential to understanding transmission patterns and to devise strategies to contain the virus. The experts at WHO were stymied by Chinese officials for data on hospital transmissions. China’s failure to provide open and transparent information to WHO is more than a moral breakdown. It is also the breach of a legal duty that China owed to other states under international law, and for which injured states — now numbering some 150 nations — may seek a legal remedy.
Unfortunately, China’s evasions are part of the autocratic playbook, repeating its obstruction of information that worsened the SARS crisis 18 years earlier. In that case, China tried to cover up the SARS epidemic, which led WHO member states to adopt the new International Health Regulations in 2005. In both cases, China and the world would have been spared thousands of unnecessary deaths had China acted forthrightly and in accordance with its legal obligations. Although China’s public health system has been modernized, observed Jude Blanchette, head of China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, its political system has regressed....