China has lied about the extent of the coronavirus outbreak within its borders, downplaying both the number of cases and deaths – and undermining the world’s capacity to respond to the pandemic.
That is the conclusion of a classified report compiled by US intelligence agencies and given to the White House last week, Bloomberg News reports, citing three anonymous American officials.
Two of those officials put it rather bluntly, saying the report found China’s figures were “fake”.
That news is not exactly surprising. There has long been a cloud of suspicion over China’s official numbers.
Earlier this week, The Daily Mail reported senior advisers to the British Government had warned UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson those numbers might be “downplayed by a factor of 15 to 40 times”.
And China’s government has a history of deception.
It has previously admitted to reporting false figures during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s – and we already know it initially tried to cover up this outbreak.
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: Li Xueren/Xinhua via AP Source: AP
The pandemic, which has now infected more than 900,000 people around the world, started in Wuhan, a city in China’s Hubei Province, late last year.
A group of doctors attempted to sound the alarm, sharing posts on social media in December warning of a SARS-like virus spreading in Wuhan. At least one of those doctors, Li Wenliang, was detained and punished for spreading “rumours” and making “false statements”. The coronavirus killed him in February.
Another doctor, physician Ai Fen, believed the disease was probably transmissible between humans in late December. Her hospital admonished her, accusing her of causing “trouble” and “social panic”.
China did not publicly admit coronavirus could spread from human to human until January 20, the same day President Xi Jinping finally made a public statement outlining a response to the disease.
A week earlier, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was still parroting Chinese authorities’ false claims there was “no clear evidence” of such transmission.
We now know the virus is, and always was, extraordinarily contagious.
By suppressing that information for weeks, China robbed the rest of the world of time it could have used to prepare for the pandemic.
“The medical community interpreted the Chinese data as: This was serious, but smaller than anyone expected, because I think probably we were missing a significant amount of data, now that what we see happened to Italy and see what happened to Spain,” Dr Deborah Birx, the immunologist currently serving as the White House’s coronavirus response co-ordinator, said this week.
Put more simply, China’s deception led other nations to make false assumptions about the virus, which left them more vulnerable to the pandemic.
Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China
China did eventually take the virus seriously, imposing strict lockdown measures in Wuhan to significant effect.
But the intervention came too late. According to researchers from the University of Southampton, China could have cut the number of cases by an astonishing 95 per cent if it had acted three weeks sooner.
And even now, the Chinese Government’s figures cannot be trusted.
China has reported 81,554 cases of the virus and 3312 deaths, but those numbers have barely risen in a month. The government claims local transmission has all but stopped. Most new cases, few as there are, have been classified as “imported” from overseas.
Meanwhile three countries – the United States, Italy and Spain – have seen their confirmed cases surge past 100,000.
At the time of writing, the US had reported 211,408 cases and 4718 deaths.
The Washington Post has pointed out that China’s data started to show the virus’s spread slowing markedly around the same time its government’s messaging shifted.
“Once the central government’s propaganda mission to win the ‘people’s war’ against the virus became clear, numbers shifted to achieve that vision,” the newspaper noted.
“Such shifts would probably be subtle – not hundreds or thousands of hidden deaths, but instead excluding deaths that could be attributed to other types of pneumonia or heart failure, for instance.”
Reacting to the US intelligence report today, Republican Senator Ben Sasse dismissed China’s figures as “garbage propaganda”.
“The claim that the United States has more coronavirus deaths than China is false,” Mr Sasse said.
“Without commenting on any classified information, this much is painfully obvious – the Chinese Communist Party has lied, is lying and will continue to lie about coronavirus to protect the regime.”
His colleague Michael McCaul struck a similar tone.
“They lied to the world about the human-to-human transmission of the virus, silenced doctors and journalists who tried to report the truth and are now apparently hiding the accurate number of people impacted by this disease,” Mr McCaul said.
Those comments are merely the most recent in an increasingly bitter war of words between China and the United States, with each country blaming the other for the pandemic.
Multiple Chinese officials have spread the baseless conspiracy theory that the virus actually started in the United States.
And US officials, including President Donald Trump, have blasted China in return.
“The world is paying a very big price for what they did,” Mr Trump said last month.
“It could have been contained to that one area in China where it started.”