The new coronavirus might have never turned into a pandemic, sparing countless lives, if Chinese authorities had not censored the free flow of information and cracked down on whistleblowers, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said.
RSF cited a report from the University of Southampton, which posited the number of new coronavirus cases in China could have been reduced by 86 percent if efforts to contain the disease had been implemented two weeks prior to Jan. 20.
Those efforts were not made, however, due to a concerted effort to control the media, the free flow of information online, and doctors who attempted to warn the public of the impending pandemic.
RSF, for example, noted how the first documented case of the new coronavirus dates back to Nov. 17.
Within a month, there were 60 patients with an “unknown SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome)-like pneumonia,” many of whom had visited the same wet market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan — ground zero for the ongoing pandemic.
“If the authorities had not hidden from the media the existence of an epidemic outbreak linked to a very popular market, the public would have stopped visiting this place long before its official closure on Jan. 1st,” RSF said.
The group further noted the silencing of whistle blowers, including Li Wenliang, a doctor who tried to warn the public about the new coronavirus, and later died from it.
Prior to his death, Li had been accused of “severely disrupting public order” and threatened with criminal charges after posting a test result confirming a “SARS-like” coronavirus on social media.
His death sparked public outrage and calls for free speech.
“Dr. Li was like many within the Chinese population who want to report the reality of what is going on and alert their fellow citizens about government negligence,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“The coronavirus crisis has drawn attention to the deep thirst for reliable information within Chinese society, which is saturated with propaganda. Xi Jinping’s government has responded with deadly brutality,” he said.
The group added that if the press and social media had been free to disseminate information made available by other whistleblowers on Dec. 30, “the public would have realized the danger and put pressure on the authorities to take measures limiting expansion of the virus.”
RSF further noted how strict control over the flow of information further left Chinese citizens in the dark at a critical time.
That includes a simulated coronavirus pandemic carried out in October 2019 by the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which predicted 65 million deaths in 18 months.
“If the Chinese internet were not isolated by an elaborate system of electronic censorship and the media were not forced to follow the instructions of the Communist Party, the public and the authorities would have undoubtedly been interested in this information coming from the United States, which echoed the SARS … epidemic of 2003,” RSF said.
RSF also noted that if free speech was protected in China, the new coronavirus genome could have been disseminated earlier, helping scientists come up with a vaccine.
The international community would also have had more time to prepare to counter the threat of pandemic, it said.
China ranks 177th out of 180 in the 2019 RSF World Press Freedom Index.