“The first instinct of the (Chinese) authorities is always to cover up.”
On the 23rd of January last year Chinese authorities announced they were locking down the city of Wuhan, home to some eleven million people. The Chinese government was desperate to contain an outbreak of a new virus that would soon be labelled COVID-19. What they didn’t reveal was that the virus had already been circulating for at least seven weeks while Chinese officials tried to stop the news of it getting out.
“The hospital told us that we were not allowed to speak to anyone. They wouldn’t even let us wear masks, they said they were afraid of causing panic among the patients. I thought the leaders were stupid.”
On Monday Four Corners brings you an investigation into what the Chinese government knew about the virus and compelling evidence of a determined campaign to keep it under wraps.
“The government is obliged by law to report that to the World Health Organisation within 24 hours. So, it was reportable. The failure to report clearly was a violation of the international health regulations.”
The program pieces together the how the COVID-19 outbreak was discovered, and the lengths Chinese authorities went to, to keep it quiet.
“Once the Chinese authorities confirmed it was a coronavirus, at that point it seemed absolutely ridiculous that we couldn’t release the data.”
In interviews with key health specialists around the globe, the story of those crucial few weeks unfolds.
“Social media was ripe with lots of chatter going on in Chinese of an outbreak and did we know anything about it? I was able to monitor the … posts and it was just going wild. My reaction was we’re in trouble.”
Secretly obtained recordings reveal the growing level of alarm within world health circles and their frustration over the lack of transparency from China.
“We’re going on very minimal information. I know it’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning with it.”
The World Health Organisation itself has been criticised for being too slow to react and too ready to believe China’s reassurances. In one interview, a senior member of the WHO’s investigation team defends their actions and those of China.
“Every day we would go back and we would ask for more information and we would receive information every day. Was it enough every single day? No, but I could say that for every country that we dealt with in every outbreak that we have dealt with.”
Health workers at the outbreak’s epicentre have been prohibited from speaking publicly but one has defied the ban to reveal how the unprecedented health emergency unfolded.
“Every day there were several hundred people with fever arriving at our emergency department. I was definitely afraid, I realised that this illness was everywhere.”
As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc around the globe, investigators and international health experts say it’s crucial the lessons from this pandemic are learned, as it will not be the last.