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Falling for China’s Fake Covid-19 News Was Dangerous and Preventable

Published in: Quartz

As Covid-19 continues to cut a grim path across the globe, debates continue to rage about who is to blame. In one of his many moves to shift accountability for his own inept response to the crisis, US president Donald Trump said he would place a hold on funding for the World Health Organization, alleging that the agency “willingly took China’s assurances to face value” and “pushed China’s misinformation.”

But the truth is that everyone—the US government, the WHO, journalists, public health officials, and others—should have known better than to trust Beijing’s claims, whether in its initial dismissal of the possibility of human-to-human transmission, or in its current reports of infection and death-toll numbers. In China’s one-party authoritarian system, officials suppressing information and manipulating data for propaganda or career advancement is nothing new, and likely won’t change any time soon.

The Chinese government’s consistent record of censorship and manipulation of information during public health crises is in the public domain. It’s well documented. We would do well to look beyond the official Chinese numbers, rely on the information we can trust, and focus on what’s most important: containing and eradicating the deadly global pandemic.

Cover-ups, Apathy, and Inertia

Over the past two decades, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the Chinese government’s censorship and falsification of information during public health crises. A government worker in southern China told me that she had little confidence in the accuracy of the non-contact digital thermometers she and her colleagues were instructed to use to check local residents’ temperature at checkpoints. “We don’t think they actually work. It was just for show, in case the [national authorities] come to inspect,” she said.

In the 2000s, numerous mass lead poisoning incidents were reported as China was quickly becoming known as “the world’s factory.” In a 2011 report, Human Rights Watch documented that government officials in provinces with high rates of industrial pollution restricted access to lead testing, deliberately withheld or falsified test results, and denied children treatment. Family members and journalists seeking information about the problem were intimidated and harassed.

During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, authorities initially underreported infection rates and falsely proclaimed that the “atypical pneumonia” had “already been brought under effective control.” The cover-up contributed significantly to the spread of the disease. Contrary to current WHO praise for the Chinese government’s Covid-19 response, WHO officials at the time repeatedly expressed concern about underreporting and the lack of transparency.

In a 2005 report, Human Rights Watch detailed Chinese authorities’ harassment of AIDS activists and suppression of information that showed that China’s AIDS epidemic was largely caused by government-sponsored unsanitary blood-for-money programs.  In 2004, authorities in Henan, the province hardest hit at the time, said there were 25,036 carriers of HIV in the province, but local doctors and activists, based on their field research in affected villages, estimated that at least one million people had contracted HIV as a result of blood-selling schemes.

In the summer of 2008, for more than a month the Chinese government prohibited the domestic media from reporting on infants being poisoned by toxin-laced milk powder formula—which resulted in at least six deaths and sickened approximately 300,000 children. Ultimately, economic concerns prompted Chinese authorities to let up on media restrictions. Zhao Lianhai, the father of a poisoned-milk victim, was later sentenced to a two-and-a-half-year prison term for exposing the government’s failure to assist child victims.

In 2018, authorities across the country harassed, detained, and persecuted journalists, activists, lawyers, and families of victims for exposing China’s persistent faulty vaccine problems. News articles and social media posts that criticized the government’s failure to regulate the vaccine market properly were routinely censored.

The Value of Good Information

To be sure, ensuring accurate information on the number of people infected with Covid-19 and the number of deaths is not easy, and some governments are admitting this is a challenge that makes containing the global pandemic all the more difficult. But in China, investigations by scientists, journalists, and citizens continue to be suppressed, just as they have been for decades.

The apathy and inertia pervasive within China’s vast bureaucracy hampers both accurate reporting and adequate detection of Covid-19 cases. The country’s history of cover-ups should have served as a warning to anyone reading the news that official Chinese information about the virus simply isn’t reliable.

As the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. No one should be fooled by information put out by the Chinese government the next time around.

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