A Paris-based press freedom group said on Wednesday that the coronavirus epidemic may never have gone pandemic if journalists had been allowed to do their jobs rather than adhering to the ruling Chinese Communist Party propaganda directives.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement, citing recent research: “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.”
Researchers at the University of Southampton published a report earlier this month which concluded that the number of cases could have been reduced by 86% 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.
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.
Instead, all eight whistleblowers were detained and questioned by police, who accused them of “rumor-mongering.” Li Wenliang later died of COVID-19.
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.
China ranks 177th out of 180 in the 2019 RSF World Press Freedom Index. (Source: RFA)