20 Mar 2020

China and Covid-19 - rewriting the facts

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 20 March 2020
Washington Post Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield in isolation on Waiheke Island

Washington Post Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield in isolation on Waiheke Island Photo: Supplied/Anna Fifield

Cases of Covid-19 are on the rise in much of the world – but not in China. Yesterday it had no cases of local transmission - the curve is flat. 

In total there have been more than 80,000 cases of Covid-19 in the world’s most populous country, with a death toll of about 3,200.

But in the former epicentre of the disease, Hubei province, new cases of the virus have dropped to "negligible" levels.

So how did China contain the disease? And what can the rest of the world learn from their response?

Anna Fifield is a New Zealander who's also the Washington Post's bureau chief in Beijing - though she's currently in self-isolation on Waiheke Island in Auckland.

She says China's authoritarian style of government allowed the country to enact sweeping measures to keep the virus contained.

"On the 23rd of January they acted by cutting off all transport links to Wuhan – trains, planes, everything was grounded.

“Then it turned into a situation where they were ordering people to stay inside their apartments. They were allowing one person to leave every second day to do essential things, and gradually that moved to nobody being allowed to leave at all – deliveries were taken to people’s doors.

Shop staff uses a board to hand mantous, Chinese steamed bun, to customer in Beijing on February 11, 2020.

Photo: AFP

“At the moment they’re easing up slightly – they’re allowing people to leave for medical appointments … but even today Wuhan is still pretty much in lockdown.

“At the beginning everybody was very shocked that the Chinese government would and could do this – order tens of millions of people, basically under house arrest. But that does seem to have proven effective."

While the Chinese government has been widely criticised for underplaying the severity of the disease when it was first identified in December, its ability to contain the spread has been praised by global health bodies, including the World Health Organisation.

Such draconian measures are difficult to enact in democratic countries, but the urgency of the Chinese response stands in stark contrast to the apathy demonstrated by other countries like the United Kingdom and America.

But the spread of Covid-19 has also highlighted problems with censorship and misinformation in the world's most populous nation.

The virus had been present in China for weeks before the country's leaders notified the World Health Organisation.

Chinese doctors who flagged the disease as a serious concern in early December were forced to retract their words and apologise. 

Respected academics who criticised the Communist Party's guardedness were placed under house arrest.

And Anna Fifield says Chinese authorities are now trying to change the narrative of how the virus spread around the world.

" China seizes on every opportunity to make the US look bad …  but in this situation Donald Trump has made it very easy to continue spouting this propaganda.

“But China actively suppressed this information at the beginning.

“Scientifically we can see it stemmed from a market in Wuhan. Scientists say it seems to have originated in bats and then jumped to an intermediate carrier … and has then gone to humans. That’s peer-reviewed information.

“But now China has started up this narrative about how maybe it didn’t come from China – maybe in fact it came from the United States – as part of this broader ideological, political, economic war between the countries.

“This is clearly fake news – clearly something China is trying to push to absolve itself of blame for the crisis, because I think they can see, across the world, there is going to be a lot of blowback against China.”