The coronavirus epidemic may never have gone pandemic if journalists had been allowed to do their jobs rather than adhering to ruling Chinese Communist Party propaganda directives, a Paris-based press freedom group said on Wednesday.
"Without the control and censorship imposed by the authorities, the Chinese media would have informed the public much earlier of the severity of the coronavirus epidemic, sparing thousands of lives and perhaps avoiding the current pandemic," Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement, citing recent research.
Researchers from the University of Southampton published a report earlier this month which concluded that the number of cases could have been reduced by 86 percent in the early weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, if the media had been allowed to inform the public of the danger to their health.
The report looks at a series of key dates on which media reports could have swung the tide of the official and public response to the coronavirus epidemic when it first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, starting with the results of a simulated coronavirus pandemic public by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security on Oct. 18, 2019.
The report, carried out in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, projected a total of 65 million deaths in 18 months from a newly emerging pandemic coronavirus.
"If the Chinese internet were not isolated by an elaborate system of electronic censorship and the media were not forced to follow the instructions of the Communist Party, the public and the authorities would have undoubtedly been interested in this information coming from the United States," RSF said.
At another key juncture on Dec. 20, Wuhan health officials might have informed journalists that there were already some 60 patients in the city suffering from a SARS-like pneumonia, many of whom had been to the Huanan Seafood Market.
But no official information was forthcoming at that time, RSF said.
"If the authorities had not hidden from the media the existence of an epidemic outbreak linked to a very popular market, the public would have stopped visiting this place long before its official closure on Jan. 1," it said.
Another opportunity to stave off disaster presented itself on Dec. 25, when Lu Xiaohong, head of gastroenterology at Wuhan No. 5 Hospital first began hearing of medical staff infected with a new disease, and suspecting that human-to-human transmission was already occurring, weeks before this was admitted by Chinese health officials.
"If journalists' sources in China did not face severe penalties ranging from professional reprimand to heavy prison terms, Doctor Lu Xiaohong would have taken responsibility for alerting the media, forcing the authorities to take action, which only happened three weeks later," RSF said.
In a more famous potential turning point, eight Wuhan medics started posting to social media about a SARS-like coronavirus on Dec. 30.
If their warnings had been widely reported in the media, the authorities could have stemmed the spread of COVID-19 much sooner.
Instead, all eight were detained and questioned by police, who accused them of "rumor-mongering." whistleblower Li Wenliang later died of COVID-19.
"If the press and social media had been able to freely relay the information transmitted by whistleblowers on December 30th, the public would have realised the danger and put pressure on the authorities to take measures limiting expansion of the virus," RSF said.
It said the censorship of certain keywords linked to the outbreak on the popular social media platform WeChat had also prevented journalists from putting out up-to-the-minute reports to around one billion active users of the platform.
Making the virus genome public when it was first sequenced on Jan. 5 could have slowed the spread of the virus, but researchers were forced to leak it online, after which their institution, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center was shut down.
The delay meant that the international community wasted precious time in the development of a vaccine.
"If the international media had had full access to information held by the Chinese authorities on the scale of the epidemic before Jan. 13, 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," RSF said.
China ranks 177th out of 180 in the 2019 RSF World Press Freedom Index.
Congress calls for investigation
The report came after lawmakers from both chambers of the U.S. Congress introduced resolutions Tuesday condemning China’s handling of the outbreak of coronavirus, with the Senate version calling for an international investigation to hold Beijing accountable for allowing the deadly virus to become a global pandemic.
“Since day one, the Chinese Communist Party intentionally lied to the world about the origin of this pandemic. The CCP was aware of the reality of the virus as early as December but ordered laboratories to destroy samples and forced doctors to keep silent,” Republican Senator Josh Hawley said in a press statement.
In the House of Representatives, Republican Rep. Jim Banks introduced a resolution stating that China “made multiple, serious mistakes in the early stages of the COVID–19 outbreak that heightened the severity and spread of the ongoing COVID–19 pandemic.”
The missteps “include the Chinese Government’s intentional spread of misinformation to downplay the risks of the virus, a refusal to cooperate with international health authorities, internal censorship of doctors and journalists, and malicious disregard for the health of ethnic minorities,” said the resolution.
The lawmakers’ measures follow war of words between Beijing and Washington over the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Repeated comments by President Donald Trump referring to the pathogen as "the Chinese virus" have rankled Chinese authorities, who have launched a major propaganda campaign to change the narrative on Wuhan.
Chinese health officials initially said they had traced the newly detected coronavirus to the now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Market in the central city of Wuhan, where the epidemic first emerged in December.
But the ruling Chinese Communist Party's propaganda machine has ordered officials to start questioning the narrative that the virus came from China.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted early this month that "patient zero" in the global pandemic may have come from the United States, drawing a sharp complaint from Washington.
Reported by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.