Updated: Oct 18, 2021
On December 10, 2019, Wuhan merchant Wei Guixian arrived at a local clinic for treatment for what she believed was a small cold. Eight days later, she lay unconscious on a hospital bed, suffering an infection in both lungs. It would take until December 31 for the Chinese government to confirm a cluster of 27 cases of “viral pneumonia” which have now been identified as COVID-19. The amount of time between the first coronavirus infections and the government confirmation, along with the censoring of medical professionals and downplaying of the virus’s capabilities, have revealed a side of the Chinese government that is full of cover-ups, not intended for the world to see.
Several doctors in Wuhan attempted to warn medical circles and the public in early December about a virus resembling the SARS virus which infected 8,000 people in 2003. Among them was Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who shared information about a virus in a medical WeChat group, advising fellow doctors to wear protective equipment when interacting with patients carrying the disease. Local authorities responded with stern warnings, informing Li that he had “severely disturbed the social order” and threatening him with being “brought to justice.” The efforts of Li and seven other doctors to reveal the rise of a deadly virus were ultimately thwarted by local authorities. This has been detrimental to the containment of the coronavirus. The lack of warning for local residents and other medical professionals caused by this censorship allowed COVID-19 to rapidly spread throughout China and into neighboring countries.
Despite the rapidly growing number of cases in early January, Chinese authorities were reluctant to acknowledge the threat and spread of COVID-19. They allowed previously scheduled large events in Wuhan such as a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) meeting and the annual Wuhan Lunar New Year Banquet to occur, bringing thousands of people together and putting their lives in danger. Throughout this period of time, China insisted that the virus could not be spread through person-to-person contact and encouraged citizens to remain calm and carry on with daily life. They not only broadcasted this propaganda to their own population, but shared it with the World Health Organization, putting the global population at risk and eventually causing the United States to attempt withdrawal from the WHO. Meanwhile, the Chinese government hastily sent epidemiologists to Wuhan and placed the city on lockdown, but not before allowing five million people to leave without being tested. Only once cases were confirmed in nearby Thailand and South Korea did the Chinese government begin to openly combat COVID-19 by restricting movement and building temporary hospitals, all the while crediting its “quick actions” as integral to slowing the spread of the virus.
While the origins of COVID-19 are unclear, researchers have determined that the virus first spread in a wet market in Wuhan where deceased and live animals were kept in dirty conditions in cages stacked on top of each other. This spread is alarmingly similar to that of SARS which saw a closing and then reopening of many wet markets. The Chinese government has always been conflicted over the consumption of wild animals. These animals, such as pangolins and bats, have been the source of several airborne infectious diseases. They have traditionally been consumed by China’s poor due to the Communist Party’s prior inabilities to provide sufficient rations to its people but are now seen as a delicacy amongst the country’s wealthy.
Beijing’s deceitful response to the outbreak of COVID-19 echoes an increasingly common sentiment within the Chinese political system: the government’s reputation as a powerful global force comes before accountability, personal freedoms, and public safety. The trail of propaganda, arrests, and censorship found in its response to COVID-19 are eerily similar to that of its response to the SARS outbreak of 2003, which saw an almost complete blockage of reporting in newspapers, so much so that an infected traveler from Guangdong was able to spread the virus around Beijing as doctors in the city had no information regarding the disease. With both COVID-19 and SARS, the Chinese government waited until the virus had spread to neighboring countries before making any substantive actions to fight it and informing the global population of the virus’s threat, Both viruses are disturbing examples of China’s efforts to save its reputation having a deadly human toll.
As a second wave of COVID-19 emerges in Beijing, the international community is beginning to recognize the instability of China’s political system, a system where absolute power to make detrimental decisions goes unchecked. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to expand China’s global reach as a military and economic power are appearing less idealistic and more threatening as he is unable to maintain his country’s policy of suppressing political opposition without triggering a national or global crisis. China’s trend of lying to the international community in humanitarian cases such as its internment of its Uighur Muslim population or its impositions on the people of Hong Kong shows that the Chinese government cannot be trusted in cases of human rights. As other countries such as Vietnam and India rise as rapidly developing economies, many corporations are beginning to see the Chinese government’s flashy oppression as a threat to their profits as they eye other countries as new hubs for investment. In China, a country where public health and safety come after reputations and political allegiances, the ability to successfully and effectively combat internal issues that could threaten the rest of the world if ignored is essentially impossible.
How do you think the Chinese government has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and how do you think this response has affected the disease’s international spreading?
“The Chinese government has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with mass censorship and cover-ups, as usual. To make things worse, the people of China are unable to see through these lies. They believe the government’s tale of a speedy recovery, which possibly could have led to the recent uptick in cases in Beijing. Even we on the outside have trouble distinguishing truth from fiction in terms of the Chinese government’s words. Many world leaders failed to take action during the earlier stages of the pandemic because the Chinese government underplayed the severity of COVID-19, leading to our current situation.” Michael Chen, 17, Rising Senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School
“I believe that while the Chinese government didn’t intend for the spread of coronavirus to be so drastic and damaging to the world, it should still be held partially responsible for many of the deaths caused by the virus. The Chinese government knowingly concealed statistics and facts about the initial outbreak in Wuhan and subsequent outbreaks across China so that it’s response to the virus would appear more effective to the world. The statistics surrounding the virus are crucial for making models and hypotheses so other countries depend on their validity to prevent more deaths.” Kyle Valorose, 17, Rising Senior at Clover Hill High School
“I think the Chinese government essentially ignored the virus. It’s not a bioweapon, but I don’t think they are upset that it has hit the Western world hard. They’ve sent medical personnel to some countries which is good, but I haven’t seen them take any real responsibility for this.” Phoebe Chambers, 17, Rising Senior at Winston Churchill High School