“In the end, the plague touched us all…it was not confined….breeding in a compost of greed and uselessness and murder…promising life and delivering death…[serving] as furnished rooms for ideology.”
—Pete Hamill, liner notes to Blood on the Tracks
The 2019 Novel Coronavirus, first detected late last year in the hub city of Wuhan, China is a rapidly-spreading viral disease, often characterized by a cluster of acute respiratory symptoms. The virulence of this outbreak has put most of China under a lockdown: over 50 million people have been quarantined in the immediate region; 40,000 people have been infected, and over 900–and counting–have died. Many neighboring Chinese cities also have restrictions on travel and movement to stem the tide of infection; and across the country, all of China is facing restrictions and hardship. In the face of this sudden and tragic crisis–and the extraordinary social distancing measures the Chinese government has taken to safeguard public health and prevent infection–the western media has made a highly political choice on how to report about it.
Instead of voicing support or encouraging solidarity–“We are Wuhan”—western corporate media have chosen to go all out to criticize and demonize China, sparing no effort to recycle and rekindle ugly, racist, orientalist, and dehumanizing tropes, using any perceived misstep, pretext, and shortcoming to tar China and the Chinese. One virulent narrative is that this is deliberate Chinese bioweapon to reduce population, another narrative, no less toxic and virulent, alleges that the Chinese leadership, out of a “fear of political embarrassment”, suppressed free speech and silenced the flow of information “at critical moments”, “allowing the virus to gain a tenacious hold”, thus creating the conditions for a lethal epidemic that has led to the deaths of hundreds and the infection of thousands.
The NY Times takes the [yellow] cake for sowing this toxic, racist disinformation, alleging in numerous articles and opinion pieces of a “cover up”: that “China’s old habits put secrecy and order ahead of openly confronting the crisis”; that “they played down dangers to the public, leaving the city’s 11 million residents unaware that they should protect themselves”, and presenting this as proof dispositive that the Chinese system is fatally flawed. All this while reveling in and boosting on its website, unseemly schadenfreude that suppression of information and free speech has led to condign and expected catastrophe.
The most recent iteration of this propaganda concerns a Dr Li Wenliang, recently deceased. Dr Li spoke of the disease at an early moment in the outbreak (December 30th) to a group of colleagues. He was later reprimanded by the police for “spreading rumors”. After going back to work, he himself contracted the virus, and despite being young and seemingly healthy, he tragically passed away. Latching onto this unexpected fatality like a virus itself, the NY Times grafted onto his death, the “authoritarian suppression of the truth” meme, thus exploiting tragedy to circulate a political myth: that Dr. Li was a valiant, dissenting whistleblower who had “tried to sound a warning that a troubling cluster of…infections…could grow out of control”. In other words, he had tried to warn the public early on about the virus, but had been brutally silenced and suppressed.
In particular, the Times claims that Dr Li was arrested by the government, “in the middle of the night”, no less; and suggests that had he not been silenced, 100’s, perhaps thousands of lives would have been saved, and countless infections prevented. In other words, the Chinese communists, because of their obsession with political appearances, their mendacious secrecy, and totalitarian control, instigated a cover up that has had a nightmarish consequences for global health.
This disclosure would be truly extraordinary, heroic, award-meriting journalism. Except for one small problem: none of the assertions are supported by the facts, and none of the interpretations bear scrutiny.
In order to peddle this toxic canard, the NY Times–as it did with its gutter journalism justifying the Iraq War–has had to yellow-cake up a foul brew of innuendo, half-truths, misrepresentations, outright lies, spiked fiercely with stereotypes, racial hatred, and red-baiting, while torturing the English language, eliding logic, ignoring science, and shredding the credibility of the fourth estate–yet again.
These are the facts:
1. Not a whistle blower.
The NY Times suggests that Dr Li was a whistle blower, “sounding a warning”. But Dr. Li was not a whistle blower, by any usual definition of the word. He didn’t notify the Chinese CDC or any public health organ. He did not notify the hospital authorities. He did not warn the public of wrongdoing, danger, or cover up. What he did do is share information with 7 school colleagues on 12/30 on a private messaging group. (He also shared a photo of a confidential medical record). How that constitutes “whistle blowing” is not explained by the NY Times.
2. Fraudulent Timeline.
The NY Times claims that the sanctioning and silencing led to suppression of timely and important information–a cover up of a dangerous but necessary truth. This assertion is not borne out by the facts. The “whistle”–if we can call it that–had already been blown by others. For example, doctor, Zhang Jixian, the director of respiratory and critical care medicine at Hubei Provincial Hospital, had officially notified the hospital on December 27th of an unusual cluster of viral cases, and the hospital had notified the city’s’ disease control center. After further consultation on the 29th, the regional CDC was notified and had started full scale research and investigation. The government was already actively investigating and doing their due diligence with other cases long before the NY Times allegations (constructed as always from anonymous sources). Zhang herself, contrary to the suppression and punishment narrative, was recognized and commended by the government.
3. Wrong Claim.
The doctor had claimed it was SARS, a related, but different coronavirus. However, it was not SARS. Why is this important? Given the panic that spread during the prior 2003 SARS epidemic, spreading this incorrect information would be a understandable reason to try to restrict inaccurate, and possibly panic-inducing information.
4. No Evidence.
Well what’s in a name? SARS or no SARS, it was still dangerous, and shouldn’t have been suppressed, no?
In making its claims of cover up, the NY Times suggests that the authorities recognized and knew that the disease was dangerous, but covered it up anyway. This is far from the truth at the time: there was little clear evidence that this was a dangerous or severe epidemic at the time of the outbreak.
a) there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission at that time (the first case happened two weeks later, on 1/14)
b) there had been no fatalities (the first fatality was 1/09/20, ten days later), and there were only a handful of cases.
c) even later, as more casualties started to appear, most of the casualties were older people with serious existing pathology or co-morbidity.
In other words, it was unclear how serious this was, and whether and how serious actions should be taken: commonsense tells us in winter, colds, flu and pneumonia are not uncommon; discerning a novel, serious outbreak is not a simple task. The mere fact that the Chinese authorities were able to identify and take action on this so rapidly is indicates how competent, effective, and conscientious many of them were.
5. No Expertise or Qualification.
The NY Times claims the “doctor tried to sound a warning”, but it’s important to note that Dr Li had no expertise in the subject matter, was not familiar with the situation, was not treating affected patients, and had no expertise to make any such claims: he was a ophthalmologist (not an epidemiologist, virologist, infectious disease specialist, internist, ICU specialist, or even a GP or X-ray/CT technician). There’s no proof that he was privy to any specialized insider information that was being covered up; and the hospital was already taking all known precautions with patients at the time.
6. Not arrested.
Dr Li was not arrested, as the NY Times claims. The doctor was called in, lightly reprimanded (talked to, and signed a document not to spread rumors) and went straight back to work. This begs the question, if a non-specialist (for example, a podiatrist) at a public General Hospital had claimed that there was an outbreak of infectious disease (for example, bubonic plague (and released HIPAA-protected documents (like Dr. Li did)), how credible is it that they would have escaped some sort of official sanction?
7. Understandable Reasons for Acting Methodically
The government had reasonable, and defensible reasons to act prudently and methodically. While the jury is still out, and the timeline bears elaborating, there’s still little evidence that this was a deliberate attempt to “stifle criticism” and “silence” to avoid “embarrassment”. Based on the evidence available at the time, we can reasonably surmise that:
a) The authorities didn’t know how serious this was at the time—a reasonable assumption given the known evidence at the time.
b) The “nocebo” effect (negative placebo) is real–people can take any ambiguous symptoms (that are always present in the body) and think they are sick.
c) Panicked, mass hysterical responses are not uncommon, and themselves can constitute a public health hazard. Either of these effects, caused by premature or careless disclosure could have resulted in:
i) People thinking themselves sick
ii) People crowding hospitals, stretching resources, while spreading the infection faster, as well as preventing genuinely sick people from getting care (all at a time when public services are winding down)
iii) Mass exodus, spreading the infection outside of Wuhan much faster
iv) Hoarding & scarcity of masks and other supplies, vigilante quarantines, and other hysterical, dangerous, and unproductive behavior.
It’s important to note also that this was the period of the Spring Festival, the busiest and most important holiday of the year. While it’s easy to criticize the cautious, tentative responses in hindsight, It’s understandable that authorities might not want to take extreme measures if it was a false alarm.
8. Upfront Transparency.
The NY Times alleges “cover up” and “secrecy”: however, the Wuhan authorities publicized that the doctor had been sanctioned. In this way, they actually spread information about his “whistleblowing” and the fact of the disease symptoms. As a matter of fact, they have publicized all the people sanctioned for similar actions. This would seem to indicate that:
a) at the time, they genuinely believed they were taking correct actions–actions that would be justifiable and vindicated—and they did not know that this disease was as serious as it turned out to be (and it’s not clear how could they have known)
b) it’s unlikely they were trying to hide or cover up anything. If they had been trying to silence or cover up something, this incident would most likely have gone unannounced.
9. Not Ahead of the Government.
The NY Times claims that Dr. Li sounded an alarm in a context where the governments “initial handling” was slow, negligent, or reluctant. The facts belie this:
Dr. Li was not ahead of the government. As we noted above regarding the timeline, the government (Wuhan disease authorities) had already been informed, and they delivered their own public warning the same day as Dr Li’s sharing with his friends. There is little evidence to show that this was “forced” or “compelled” by the ophthalmologist’s message (as the NYTimes has claimed).
In fact, as is usually the case with public announcements, the health department had likely been discussing, drafting, and planning their statement prior to release on that day.
Note, also that this information was released before Dr. Li was called to the police for reprimand on 1/03 (in other words, the information was already out, and the reprimand can be interpreted as a critique of the speculation, as well as the how, why, and who of sharing than an attempt at erasure). Whether the reprimand was judiciously or skillfully delivered is another matter, but the facts remain that no coverup can be asserted from this incident.
10. “Yellow-Caking” the Experts, Again.
The NY Times implies that the Chinese government knew the outbreak was serious, but covered it up and delayed notification anyway to avoid political embarrassment. But again, it seems that the facts belie the assertion:
The WHO was also notified on 12/31 (the following day) of an “unknown virus” but did not consider it serious. The WHO did not suggest any quarantine or extreme public health measures. On 1/05, they advised against a travel restriction. 1/15, they again indicated there was no human-to-human transmission. 1/23, they indicated it was not a public health emergency. Only on 1/30 did they declare an emergency–fully 30 days after the so-called NYTimes-imputed “whistleblowing”.
11. Communist Catastrophe, Really?
The NYTimes, in particular, along with its ideological cousin the CFR, has been avidly red-baiting, pumping up the narrative of “whistleblower-cover-up” and “weak governance” endemic to “authoritarian-dictatorships-that-create-catastrophes-like-Chernobyl” trope. “Undemocratic Governance is dangerous for your health” claim the ideologues. But freedom-loving capitalist America easily outdoes any modern socialist state in its negligence and damage to public health and wellbeing. A casual point of comparison is the 2009 H1N1 A “San Diego” virus. This took the US To 6 months to declare an emergency and take active measures. Because of this inaction, 150k-575K people died all over the world. 80% were under 65 years old. Or last year’s flu (61,000 deaths in the US). Or this year’s flu (8-10,000 dead since October), 1400 dying in a single week. Oh, and let’s not forget the AIDS crisis. The opiate crisis. The lead crises. The homelessness crisis. The list is endless, repetitious, atrocious.
12. New Standards in Crisis Response.
Contrary to NYTimes claims of incompetence, “weakness”, and slowness, it seems that the Chinese have been setting new, groundbreaking standards and practices in outbreak detection and response. Examination of the facts shows that the Chinese were actually well prepared and well coordinated in their response–this has been acknowledged and commended by the WHO, and other public health agencies and experts of repute. They had a centralized database and control tower, which is why they were able to react so quickly to isolate, identify, sequence, and take public action on this. Let’s not forget, they also built two full-functioning, state-of-the-art isolation hospitals in a matter of days.
13. Monday Morning Schadenfreude.
The NY Times has been willfully ignoring all of that is positive: skilled, coordinated mobilization; technical and medical tour-de-forces; mass acts of solidarity, generosity, and kindness across the country; and valiant, extraordinary medical and medical worker competence and heroism. Instead the Monday-morning epidemiological quarterbacking of the NY Times (and derivative media) has been savage and odious in exploiting every perceived mishap as a pretext to pile on and attack the Chinese people and the Chinese system: for example, the NY Times article on 2/01/20– insinuates cover-up, and “systemic weakness” (but it has to exclude the specific timeline* in order to make its case).
Nicholas Kristof, taking a sabbatical from his paternalistic, prurient, misguided, and misleading reportage on child sex trafficking, is especially toxic in his offensive, red-baiting misrepresentation:
“Xi used his tight rule to control information rather than to stop an epidemic”.
“China makes poor decisions because it squelches independent voices…[it listens only to] flattery and optimism.. Xi is a preening dictator, some citizens are paying a price”.
In times of crisis, for western nations, the normal response is “We are Paris, NY, etc”. When it comes to Asia and China, the measured response is: “You deserve this because of your dirtiness, immorality, and bat-eating communist dictatorship”; “You would rather control your citizens than save lives”. This is often followed up by some variant of “nuke China”. Kristof and his ideological teammates can be isolated here, patients zero with their null set of facts, turning up the dials to 10 in this toxic wind tunnel of Sinophobia and hate speech.
14. Bashing China on “Free Speech”
Running lapdog parallel to Kristof, taking the baton/bone from the NY Times, the Guardian also says “if China valued free speech, there would be no coronavirus”. This is the offensive viral meme cultured and replicated from the death Dr. Li. Of course, even cursory reflection might lead one to consider–in the capital of “Free Speech”–lead poisoning in Flint Michigan, the AIDS crisis, H1N1 A pandemic, mass shootings, not to mention Global Warming. It also bears emphasizing that the HK rioters–and their media backers–have a strong track record of opposing any “Free Speech” that doesn’t agree with theirs, by burning, beating, lynching, threatening, and doxxing everyone who disagrees with them.
Of course, fetishizing “Free speech” is not a panacea to all political or social ills. Certainly in a public health crisis, it cannot be assumed that unbridled “Free speech” is factually correct, or even beneficial (cf. “yelling fire in a crowded theater”). Underlying this fetishized concept is the liberal/anarcho-capitalist conceit that “in the marketplace of ideas” the correct one will naturally emerge to benefit all of society. Of course, history has shown, time and time again, that this is hardly the case. The “free speech” of the “anti-vax” movement is a case in point: it increases the chances that the US will be subject to a deadly pandemic. Various local epidemics, as well as the US (San Diego) H1N1 A Pandemic of 2009 with 280K dead (150-575K dead) signal to us this potential risk.
Another point of comparison: 11,435 people died in the 1st 2 weeks of August of 2003 in the free-speech capital of France. This was from heatstroke, dehydration and their sequelae–all easily preventable and predictable deaths for a government with a commitment to public health.
French capitalism/governance was not raked through the coals for this, nor considered to have lost fundamental legitimacy because of this tragedy–nor charged with covering it up or underreporting (although they did)–although to prevent these deaths required no special treatments, hospitals, protective equipment, medicine, research, or technology, It just required, some extra water, some common sense, and perhaps a few public shelters. And political will and care. Can you say “politique de deux poids, deux mesures”?
15. Amateurism Trumps Experts.
In order to bolster their trumped-up case, the NY Times, along with others (the rabid anti-China newssite DemocracyNow!, the CFR/FP) has trolled out a shadowy truck-load of ideological scientific amateurs to bolster and backstop their case. Of course, it’s convenient to overlook the fact that epidemiology is a complex science–and that predicting the course, virulence, and lethality of an outbreak is not unlike predicting the strength, path, and effects of a hurricane. Trotting out amateurs from the NYTimes to troll the epidemiologists and the WHO is like getting amateur bloggers to attack atmospheric scientists (for getting a detail of global warming wrong).
15.Was the Chinese response fast enough?
There’s a perpetual insinuation by the NY Times and its ideological allies that hide-bound, “authoritarian” bureaucracies cannot respond appropriately, quickly, or effectively to such outbreaks: “Weak, undemocratic governance is dangerous for your health”.
This question really begs others: fast relative to what? These responses were some of the fastest institutional response seen in modern epidemiological history.
Appropriate relative to what? This was the period of the Spring Festival, with the largest mass migration in history (billions of trips taken) with all the conflicting demands, uncertainties and strains that that entailed.
Effective relative to what? Modern responses under neoliberal order (MERS, Ebola, H1N1) have been an endless catalog of global catastrophes.
When the investigations are completed–and the Chinese government is ruthlessly investigating itself—and the history written, the record may judge that these were the best possible actions of an organized, conscientious government, trying to do the best under difficult, almost impossible circumstances. Were the responses perfect? Most certainly not. Were there gaps and lapsus? Absolutely, yes. Did the central and local government work hand-in-hand perfectly? Most certainly not. Was there discontent expressed on Weibo and other public fora? Most certainly. But given the extraordinary complexities and challenges of responding to the outbreak, its timing, its conflicting priorities, the size of the population, its stresses, strains and demands, we can be sure that this response will be written up in the Public Health text books, and when the final judgement call is made, it will be largely favorable to the Chinese government, bloviating ideologues and racists be damned.
* Brief Timeline of Outbreak and Responses:
12/8 First suspected case
12/8-12/18 investigations started by authorities of 7 cases of suspicious pneumonia; 2 linked to seafood market
12/21 First cluster of patients identified with “an unknown pneumonia” (reported 1/01)
12/25 Report of medical workers possibly infected
12/27 Dr. Zhang Jixian, the director of respiratory and critical care medicine at Hubei Provincial Hospital, notifies the hospital of an unusual cluster of viral cases; the hospital notifies the city’s’ disease control center.
12/29 Hubei Provincial hospital convenes and consults with a group of experts, and then notifies the regional CDC.
12/30 An Ophthalmologist , Dr Li Wenliang, in Wuhan, China, posts a warning about a cluster of patients diagnosed with SARS to colleagues. patients quarantined. (This doctor is censured by authorities for spreading unconfirmed rumors; This is the incident is characterized by the western media as “suppression”; however, it’s important to note 1) he’s not a virologist or epidemiologist, 2) he was not treating these patients 3) it wasn’t SARS 4) the nature of the disease was being investigated, but was still unknown at the time 5) most importantly, all of the patients were quarantined).
Notice issued and public health announcement made by Wuhan Municipal Health Committee of an unknown viral illness.
12/31 Chinese government informs WHO of existence of a new unknown virus; emergency symposium held on treatment; experts dispatched to investigate
1/1 Seafood market shut down as potential cause of outbreak. Chinese researchers at the CCDC publish an article on suspected outbreak.
1/2 41 patients confirmed with nCoV 2019
1/05 WHO advises against travel restrictions; no human to human transmission found at this time
1/7 Mayor’s Party meeting (didn’t mention virus, human transmission unclear at this time)
1/9 First casualty of outbreak (61 yr old with co-morbid symptoms–liver disease and stomach cancer)–death publicly reported on 1/11 after autopsy. To note–no one knew that the disease was fatal until this case, nearly one month after the initial case, and this person was already seriously sick.
1/10 First genetic blueprint sequenced and posted of nCoV 2019 (this is a medical accomplishment)
1/12 “Surge in chest illnesses” reported; Dr. Li Wenliang hospitalized.
1/13-1/15 Japan and Thailiand confirm first infections outside of China (based on publicly released blueprint)–transparency assisted identification
1/14 first suspected human to human transmission (wife of 1st casualty). This is the first time that it’s suspected that human transmission is involved.
1/15 WHO indicates no sustained human to human transmission
1/18 Community “potluck” in Baibuting, Wuhan with 40,000 attendees (severely criticized afterwards, however human-human transmission was still unclear at this point); 312 cases
1/20 Premier Li Keqiang urges decisive and effective actions
1/22 People in Wuhan told to wear masks
1/23 Quarantine announced of Wuhan; all outbound traffic frozen, WHO states this is not Public Health Emergency of Global concern
1/24 13 Hubei cities quarantined; 7 provinces declare public emergency; 26 dead, 830 infected
Lancet article published.
1/25 10 provinces declare public emergency; NY Events cancelled around China; 5 other cities quarantined in Hubei; 56M affected; Xi declares “grave situation”.
1/26 All wildlife trade banned; 56 dead 2000 cases
1/27 106 dead 4515 cases
1/30 WHO declares Global Emergency (170 dead, 7,711 cases)
2/01 1st death outside of China (Chinese man in Philippines); 304 dead, 14280 cases
2/02 Huoshenshan hospital, dedicated to treatment of nCov 2019 opened; new mask factory commences production in Beijing
2/03 361 dead, 17,205 cases (however infection rates outside of Wuhan are flattening or diminishing)
2/04 2nd death outside of China (Chinese man from Wuhan in Hong Kong). 427 dead, 20,000+infected.
2/07 Dr. Li Wenliang dies from 2019 nCoV.
2/10 910 dead, 40,000+infected.