In China, a Critical 6 Days of Silence

President Xi Jinping didn't warn public of virus for nearly a week after initial secret warning
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 15, 2020 6:33 AM CDT
In China, a Critical 6 Days of Silence
In this March 10, 2020, photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping talks by video with patients and medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in China's Hubei province.   (Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via AP)

In the six days after top Chinese officials secretly determined they likely were facing a pandemic from a new coronavirus, the city of Wuhan at the epicenter of the disease hosted a mass banquet for tens of thousands of people; millions began traveling through the city for Lunar New Year celebrations. Per internal documents obtained by the AP, the head of China's National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, laid out a grim assessment of the situation in a confidential Jan. 14 teleconference with provincial health officials. President Xi Jinping warned the public on the seventh day, Jan. 20. But by then, more than 3,000 people had been infected during almost a week of public silence. That six-day delay by the first nation to face the new coronavirus came at a critical time—the beginning of the outbreak, which has since infected nearly 2 million people globally and killed more than 127,000.

China's rigid controls on information, bureaucratic hurdles, and a reluctance to send bad news up the chain of command muffled early warnings, experts say. Some health experts said Beijing took decisive action given the information available to them. "They may not have said the right thing, but they were doing the right thing," says Ray Yip, the retired founding head of the US CDC’s office in China. But others say if the public had been warned a week earlier to practice social distancing, wear masks, and cut back on travel, cases could have been cut by up to two-thirds, a paper later found. The delay may support accusations by President Trump that the Chinese government's secrecy held back the world's response to the virus. However, even the public announcement on Jan. 20 left the US nearly two months to prepare for the pandemic—time that the US squandered. Much more here on the timeline.

(More China stories.)

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