In the middle of one of the worst pandemics in recent memory, US intelligence agencies have issued a stark warning; China may have deliberately understated the number of infections and deaths relating to coronavirus. This has major repercussions for the global response to the crisis. That being said, the USA itself did not appear to have been taking the virus seriously during the initial stages of the outbreak. Do these accusations levelled against China therefore offer a distraction from the criticism that the US has received?
Initial signs of a cover-up in China appeared in December 2019 when Doctor Li Wenliang, who was working to combat the virus in Wuhan Province, was arrested by local police for ‘spreading false rumours’ after he posted a message to fellow medics warning about the emergence of a new kind of virus. Following his death from coronavirus, there was a public outcry to which the central government reacted swiftly. It dispatched anti-corruption officials to Wuhan and sacked the provincial party leader along with its deputy. At the same time, the government woke up to the dangers of the virus, locking down five entire cities and constructing two brand new hospitals in just two weeks. However, why was this response so delayed? US intelligence agencies suggest that the Chinese central government may not have been aware of the scale of the problem. Yet how is this possible for a regime with such sophisticated surveillance capabilities? According to British journalist Andrew Neil, local officials were afraid to report the full scale of the disaster for fear of blame, dismissal or imprisonment. This fear of the central government may also be the reason why local officials took other measures to hide the full scale of the problem, such as maintaining tight control over how victims of the outbreak were buried and mourned. Deliberate misreporting of the number of coronavirus cases has major consequences for the global response to the crisis. It can be assumed that the actual number of cases is far higher than statistics suggest, which impacts on the accuracy of studies modelling the spread of coronavirus.
Accusations of China misreporting its number of coronavirus cases have come at a convenient time for president Trump’s administration, which has come under increasing criticism for its own handling of the crisis. Having initially argued that his government had done ‘one hell of a job’ in tackling the coronavirus and that the US would only see a handful of cases, President Trump is now faced with the prospect of 240,000 Americans dying as a result of the outbreak. Trump’s initial bravado came despite the rapid escalation of the outbreak in Europe, suggesting that he may not have wanted to admit the full scale of the problem because it would damage the credi???bility of his claim that he has ‘made America great again’. The fact that the US is still tussling with China over trade suggests that there is undoubtedly some political point-scoring involved in his accusations that China is not being transparent. Putting the blame for the underestimation of the crisis entirely on a lack of transparency from China is the epitome of political opportunism which will be of no help at all in bringing this outbreak under control. The US government is also in hot water over the sacking of Brett Crozier, the captain of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt which is currently under quarantine in Guam after at least 100 sailors on board tested positive for coronavirus. Crozier was sacked after writing a letter warning that not enough was being done to combat the spread of the virus on board the vessel. Although not as extreme, Crozier’s case poses a striking similarity to that of Doctor Li Wenliang. They both appear to be whistle-blowers silenced by their governments whose claims have turned out to be true. Given Crozier’s assertion that the spread of the virus is ‘accelerating’ on board USS Theodore Roosevelt, this is extremely concerning.
Ultimately, it is possible that China covered up its real number of coronavirus cases and it has been censored for it. Meanwhile, the USA does not appear to have recognized the seriousness of the crisis early enough. If the two global hegemons are not honest about the scale of Covid-19, the international community may be deprived of reliable data crucial for scientific modelling. Such inaccuracies may seriously hinder international government’s abilities to tackle this virus and, ultimately, could cost lives.