Silenced whistleblowers and 5,000 urns: Why some are questioning China's COVID-19 response.

In late December 2019, Chinese doctor Li Wenliang contacted members of his medical school alumni group on WeChat. There were seven people in quarantine in his hospital in Wuhan, he wrote; all were from a local seafood market and all were showing signs of a respiratory illness similar to SARS.

Memories of the 2003 outbreak, which infected 8,098 people and claimed 774 lives, were front of the 34-year-old ophthalmologist’s mind.

“I only wanted to remind my university classmates to be careful,” Li later told CNN.

But within hours, someone uploaded screenshots of his message, including his name. As the images ricocheted around the internet, Li knew he would be punished.

He was soon summoned to a police station, accused of “rumour-mongering” and forced to sign a statement acknowledging his ‘misdemeanour’.

The following month, the young doctor contracted the illness over which he’d been silenced: COVID-19.

Li Wenliang died in hospital on February 7.

The circumstances surrounding Li’s punishment were met with significant anger, both within China and abroad, and that only escalated after his death.

Many argued that attempts to silence whistleblowers, like Li, were only the beginning, and that the authoritarian communist Chinese government was putting lives at risk in an effort to mask the true danger and extent of the novel coronavirus outbreak.


Now, as China begins to emerge from lockdown, its outbreak largely under control, questions are being raised once again. This time about whether its citizens, health authorities and the world are being told the truth about the death toll.

But why are people so sceptical of the Chinese government’s handling of COVID-19? And should they be?

Let’s a take a look.

The precedent: the SARS coverup.

To appreciate why people are so eager to question the Chinese government’s response to this coronavirus pandemic, you only have to look back at how it handled the last one: SARS, or Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

SARS was detected in Guangdong province southern China in November 2002.

Yet it took three months before Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organisation (WHO). They also dramatically downplayed case numbers, both to their own citizens and abroad.

This lack of transparency came at a time when Guangdong had aims of a GDP growth of 12.2 per cent, and there’s been persistent speculation that the Chinese government didn’t want to deter investors.

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Whistleblowers were central to exposing the truth.

Dr Jiang Yanyong, a prominent physician and senior member of the Communist Party of China (CPC), attempted to sound the alarm but was turned away by Chinese media. The world remained in the dark until his story was picked up by TIME magazine in the United States.

The Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) later issued an unprecedented public apology over its management of the SARS. While they didn’t admit to barring media from reporting on the outbreak, Director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control, Li Liming, said their “medical departments and mass media suffered from poor co-ordination”.

“We apologise to everyone,” he said at a news conference on April 8, 2003. “We weren’t able to muster our forces in helping to provide everyone with scientific publicity and allowing the masses to get hold of this sort of knowledge.”

The red flags for COVID-19.

More than two decades on, a number of red flags have been raised about China’s handling of the local COVID-19 outbreak, too.


The first being the timing of the response.

Slow response.

Official reports from Chinese authorities to the World Health Organisation stated that the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on December 8. However, the South China Morning Post recently published claims that a leaked government data traced the first case back to November 17. This allegation hasn’t been verified.

Still, China’s authorities didn’t alert the World Health Organisation about its mysterious new cluster of “pneumonia” until December 31. And they didn’t publicly state that the disease was contagious — human to human — until January 20. By then, there were 282 confirmed infections across three countries and six deaths.

This sluggish response has been heavily criticised. And for good reason.

There now appears to be evidence that responding sooner to the disease could have saved a significant number of lives.

Research out of the University of Southhampton this month assessed the impact of China’s “non-pharmaceutical interventions”, such as early detection, isolation of cases, travel restrictions and lockdowns.

It found that: “If NPIs could have been conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier in China, cases could have been reduced by 66 per cent, 86 per cent, and 95 per cent, respectively.”

There have been signs of contrition from Chinese authorities over the speed of the initial response.

Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang conceded in a January 27 interview on state-run TV that local officials did not reveal information “in a timely fashion”. According to CNN, he said approval from State Council needed to be granted before official announcements are made.

The following day, responding to growing public anger, China’s Supreme People’s Court criticised the Wuhan police for punishing the “rumourmongers.”

“It might have been a fortunate thing for containing the new coronavirus, if the public had listened to this ‘rumour’ at the time, and adopted measures such as wearing masks, strict disinfection and avoiding going to the wildlife market,” the court said in a statement, according to SBS.

In the weeks since, the Chinese government’s response since has been roundly praised by the World Health Organisation as cooperative and transparent.


But there are media reports that allege otherwise.

Death toll: “How can so few people have died.”

Official figures out of China put the number of lives lost in Wuhan, the city in Hubei Province where the pandemic originated, at 2,535.

But there are claims from locals that it could be several times that.

According to The South China Morning Post, Chinese news magazine Caixin, reported on the weekend that a supplier had delivered 5,000 urns to one of Wuhan’s funeral homes in a single day, prompting speculation that the city’s death toll is far higher.

Likewise Wuhan’s crematoriums have reportedly been in constant operation for weeks.

“The incinerators have been working round the clock, so how can so few people have died?” a Wuhan resident identified only as Zhang told Radio Free Asia.

Still, not all are convinced China would risk a SARS-scale deception again.

As international relations expert, Dr Matt Killingsworth, told Mamamia back in January, “If China is caught in a cover-up again, it undermines China’s legitimacy at a really important time in how China is evolving both economically and socially, and undermines its ability to conduct business internationally,” he said.

“President Xi [Jinping] has called for tough measures. He said the [Communist] Party, committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels should put people’s lives and health first. And the Chinese government has warned that anyone who hides infections will be forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame.”

Whether that holds true, probably won’t be clear until we’re all out the other side.


To protect yourself and the community from COVID-19, remain in your home unless strictly necessary, keep at least 1.5 metres away from other people, regularly wash your hands and avoid touching your face.

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.

Feature Image: Twitter.

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