A report published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) claims that if China had a free press, which was allowed to function properly, the global pandemic might have been avoided altogether.
To say that China doesn’t have a free press would be an understatement. The so-called “Great Firewall of China” regulates what information can go from China into the world and from the outside world into China. Access to information is limited and censored and severely enforced — not only on the internet, but also in real life, according to instructions coming from the Communist party.
If this hadn’t been the case, RSF claims, there would have been a push for earlier action, preventing the spread of the disease.
“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 January 1st,” the RSF report reads.
Earlier action could have done all the difference
The study builds on a model from the University of Southampton, which suggests that the number of coronavirus cases in China could have been reduced by 86% if the first containment measures (which were taken on January 20th) had been implemented two weeks earlier.
Word caught on quickly in China when the first cases of a then-unknown type of pneumonia emerged in Wuhan. Doctors realized that several of the patients frequented the Huanan wet market. By December 20th, reports were already mounting.
“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 January 1st,” RSF explains.
Things took a dramatic turn in late December. The director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, Ai Fen, and a group of doctors launch an alert regarding a “SARS-like coronavirus.” Eight of them were arrested by Wuhan police on January 3rd for circulating “false rumors”. Every attempt to communicate this news was squashed, and public awareness was again delayed.
Even as China officially alerted the World Health Organisation (WHO) on December 31st about a potential outbreak, it forced social media censorship of a large number of keywords referring to the epidemic.
Then, on January 5th, Professor Zhang Yongzhen’s team at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre managed to sequence the virus, but the authorities refused to release the data. After six days, the researchers leaked the information to open-source genetics platforms — and their lab is closed as a punitive action. This piece of information would prove crucial for researchers, but again, censorship worked to tangle the situation and delay action.
“If the international media had had full access to information held by the Chinese authorities on the scale of the epidemic before January 13th, 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 concludes, emphasizing that China ranks 177th out of 180 in the 2019 RSF World Press Freedom Index.
There is a certain amount of speculation to this conclusion. There’s no guarantee that the reduction in the number of cases would have been enough to prevent the spread of the pandemic, or that other countries would have taken more serious measures at an earlier date. Most nations seem to have not taken the outbreak seriously enough in its earlier phases, and it’s hard to say what the international reaction would have been if they had access to information from the start.
But the conclusion is a poignant one nonetheless: with a free press, the local population in Wuhan would have been better informed about a novel outbreak in their community. The doctors in the hospital would have communicated the emergence of a mysterious type of pneumonia, instead of being reprimanded and silenced by the police; and the researchers would have put scientific information out in the open for the world to see.
The government censors content for mainly political reasons, but also to maintain its control over the populace. The Chinese government asserts its legal right to do so and claims that the censorship rules do not infringe on the citizen’s right to free speech.
Censorship did exactly what it was supposed to: it prevented the spread of information. Except in this case, the stakes weren’t just political: it was an international health (and subsequently, economic) crisis.
It’s a striking reminder that the press plays an important role in a healthy society, and can be an effective watchdog, helping to communicate information when it is most needed.
Eventually, China did take draconic that helped contain the outbreak in Wuhan, but the cases had spread, ultimately leading to the situation we see now.