In Depth

Is China’s slow response to blame for the coronavirus outbreak?

State led controls on information may have hampered efforts to curb spread of disease

The Chinese government was too slow to respond to the coronavirus, silencing doctors and potentially aiding its spread, according to reports.

The disease has now claimed over 300 lives worldwide, according to the BBC, including a man in the Philippines whose death was the first outside China.

More than 14,380 people have been infected, with some of the world’s leading experts now saying there are signs that a pandemic is imminent.

“It’s very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told The New York Times. “But will it be catastrophic? I don’t know.”

Did China respond too slowly?

According to The New York Times, “authorities silenced doctors and others for raising red flags” during the crucial seven weeks between the first symptoms of the virus in early December, and the government’s decision to lockdown Wuhan in January.

“They played down the dangers to the public, leaving the city’s 11m residents unaware they should protect themselves,” the paper reports. 

Based on interviews with two dozen Wuhan residents, doctors and officials, on government statements and on Chinese media reports, the paper concludes that the Chinese goverment “delayed a concerted public health offensive”.

“By not moving aggressively to warn the public and medical professionals, public health experts say, the Chinese government lost one of its best chances to keep the disease from becoming an epidemic,” the paper reports.

According to Reuters, Chinese authorities also assured citizens in the days after the virus had first been identified that it was not widely transmissible.

This advice came despite “the lack of reliable data and testing capacity in Wuhan” and meant “city managers had little incentive to escalate problems to political superiors”, the news agency reports.

At the same time, the Chinese government also “censored negative online commentary about the situation, and arrested eight people it accused of being ‘rumour spreaders’”.

Why was the response delayed?

According to the Financial Times: “Part of the reason for the tightly controlled release of information was that Wuhan, a provincial capital, was hosting annual meetings of the top municipal and provincial officials from January 7 to 17.”

Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese bureaucracy at the University of Chicago, told the FT that the conference was a “major factor” in authorities attempts to “project an air of calm and most likely delayed taking action to stop the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus”.

“Local and central government officials are facing a growing wave of public anger over the handling of the new coronavirus,” reports The Guardian.

“On Sunday, state media reported that 337 party officials in Hubei had been ‘punished’, including six county-level officials who had been fired.”

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