Not only could China have potentially prevented the global coronavirus pandemic — its authoritarian regime is now also impeding our ability to learn from it, thereby increasing the risk of future pandemics, Oliver St. John writes.
Several weeks ago, the Director General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Ghebreyesus, declared “an end to COVID-19 as a public health emergency”.
It is now more than three and a half years since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in China, and it is still unclear how the pandemic started.
It is imperative that we now redouble efforts to determine how the pandemic started and how it could have been avoided, so we can prevent future pandemics.
One important aspect that has not been given consideration is whether the nature of authoritarian regimes fosters public health emergencies such as COVID-19.
China’s authoritarian regime severely curtails many of the fundamental freedoms which citizens in democracies take for granted.
The suppression of freedom of expression, in particular, hinders independent research, information sharing and freedom of the press.
If China were a democracy, a political system in which freedom of expression and freedom of the press is indispensable, could it have been possible to contain the COVID-19 outbreak at an early stage, thus potentially avoiding the devastating global pandemic we experienced?
China's freedom of speech crackdown didn't help limit the spread
The pandemic has had an unprecedented negative impact on the lives of billions around the world and continues to affect us to this day.
According to the WHO, there have been almost 7 million deaths due to COVID-19.
And let us remember, these are only official numbers presented; authoritarian regimes such as China have not been transparent in their reporting.
And this is not the first time that Beijing's suppression of freedom of speech has fostered the spread of a coronavirus and sparked an international health crisis, as seen in the case of Dr Jiang Yanyong during the 2003 SARS epidemic.
It is, therefore, vital to understand whether China’s authoritarian system provides optimal conditions for deadly diseases to spread.
Arrests, detentions, and reprimands
The earliest case of COVID-19 is reported to have been detected on 17 November 2019, weeks before Chinese authorities acknowledged the virus.
On 30 December 2019, a Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, informed colleagues in a chat group about a novel virus, which resulted in Li being detained by police.
Li, unfortunately, died of COVID-19 in February 2020.
His death sparked demands on social media for freedom of speech in China; these demands were unsurprisingly censored by China’s repressive authorities.
Li was not an exception; it is thought that eight people were detained by police for sharing information about the COVID-19 outbreak.
Ai Fen is another doctor in Wuhan who was reprimanded for raising the alarm of a new virus in December 2019.
Staff at Ai’s hospital were explicitly forbidden from sharing information relating to the virus.
Expert advice was ignored, too
Chinese officials initially ignored advice from experts and refused to acknowledge human-to-human transmission of the virus, allowing the virus to spread quickly.
It took until 20 January 2020 for Chinese officials to finally acknowledge transmission between humans and until 23 January 2020 for a travel ban and quarantine to be imposed on Wuhan.
That amounts to over two months between the detection of the virus and the implementation of measures.
The period between 17 November 2019 and 23 January 2020 was crucial. If experts in China had been free to voice their professional opinions and share their data and findings, and if the media had been allowed to report freely on these findings, appropriate action could have been taken earlier to contain the outbreak, which was initially limited to a small area.
“We watched more and more patients come in as the radius of the spread of infection became larger,” Ai stated.
In the lead-up to the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, before the travel ban was finally implemented, around 5 million people are estimated to have travelled from Wuhan, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, thus allowing the virus to spread across China and ultimately, the globe.
We still don't know how the pandemic started
The absence of independent research and information sharing under China’s authoritarian regime continues to affect us today.
In the aftermath of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of millions and affected billions, it is crucial to understand its origins, so we can prevent it from happening again.
However, China’s authoritarian regime strikes again.
More than three years after the outbreak of COVID-19, it is still unclear how the pandemic started. In April this year, a senior WHO official denounced China’s “lack of data disclosure” as “simply inexcusable”.
Not only could China have potentially prevented the global COVID-19 pandemic — its authoritarian regime is now also impeding our ability to learn from it, thereby increasing the risk of future pandemics.
Things would have been different under a democratic regime
If China were a democracy, medical professionals and scientists would have been free to share information about the outbreak of COVID-19 without fear of repercussions.
Journalists in China would have been free to report on the outbreak. Experts could have advised the government about how to stop the spread of the deadly virus.
Under these circumstances, the Chinese government would have had no other choice but to take action earlier.
This could have prevented the virus from spreading outside of Wuhan.
At least 7 million deaths could have been avoided and immeasurable suffering prevented if only the Chinese government weren't afraid of the voices of its own citizens.
Oliver St. John is the Founder and Public Affairs Manager at the International Association for Democracy (IAD). At IAD, he leads the work on raising awareness about the challenges facing democracy around the world and on lobbying politicians to do more to promote and defend democracy.
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