As the new year dawned, an insidious enemy was hard at work. Tiny yet resourceful, it was multiplying, diversifying—and infecting. It did so unobserved by the watchful eyes of the Chinese regime, whose attentions were consumed by an altogether different threat: Li Wenliang, a 33-year-old ophthalmologist at a Wuhan hospital. On December 30, Li had shared, via WeChat, CT scans and test results of patients who presented unusual respiratory symptoms. By January 3, the Wuhan police informed Li that he had to affix his fingerprint, in lieu of a signature, to a formal letter of admonition, promising not to spread “false rumors” of a SARS-like respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus. On January 6, he died of it.
In the beginning, a virus multiplies exponentially. This makes every moment—especially in the first days of an outbreak—precious. The first week of an epidemic can make or break a response. By the time Li succumbed to Covid-19, much of that valuable first week had been squandered on the formalities that make up life in the world’s largest Communist regime—such as the florid, neo-Stalinist prose of the Wuhan police, who declared that Li’s behavior “severely disrupted social order” and had “exceeded the scope permitted by law.” The truth of Li’s warning seems not to have mattered.
Li’s fate offers a glimpse of the Chinese Communist Party’s systematic mishandling of the initial outbreak, which has now drawn the attention of multiple governments. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has expressed his support for an independent investigation, echoing calls by President Donald Trump for closer scrutiny of the Chinese response. These criticisms have prompted outrage from Chinese state-owned media, which has worked to construct an alternate reality, in which the regime’s response is a model to emulate, and Beijing a humanitarian hero of outreach and aid to afflicted countries. In this effort, they had the willing cooperation of the World Health Organization, which has praised Beijing for its handling of the virus.
China’s mismanagement of Covid-19’s initial outbreak combined the heavy-handedness of Communism with the incompetence of any overly politicized regime. Precious time was wasted in the early days by suppressing information about the new pathogen, and case counts—including the number of current cases—were dubious from the beginning and remain so. Extrapolating from the totals in Italy and Spain, it’s clear that the Chinese numbers are incomplete, probably by orders of magnitude. Arbitrary revisions, such as increasing the Wuhan death toll by 50 percent on April 17, don’t inspire confidence in Chinese case reporting. China abandoned any moral and ethical obligation to the rest of the world, putting an end to optimistic illusions that the People’s Republic had internalized and adopted the norms of civilized nations.
In a world of affordable global air travel, interlinked supply chains, and complex economic interdependencies, most of us live less than 18 hours from any pathogen in the world. The price of progress is the moral duty to report biological threats. No country, then, can legitimately claim that an outbreak is its own internal business, or disclaim responsibility when its actions—including suppression of information and systematic abuse of science—result in harm to others.
China’s people are doubly victims of this pandemic—not only of the medical and economic effects but also of a vastly inadequate response. Overcrowded mass-casualty hospitals with leaking pipes (but pristine “reading rooms,” filled with Party-approved Communist literature), a lack of suitable health-care personnel, and the government-enforced promotion of unscientific therapeutic approaches from “traditional Chinese medicine” are just some of the ways in which the Communist Party has wronged the Chinese population. Rejecting openness in favor of protecting the reputation of the world’s last stronghold of old-school Communism, China has chosen ideology over science—betting the lives of its own people, and of the world, as a result.
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