As the corona virus spreads around the world, US officials who have downplayed the risk have repeatedly blamed China’s fake data and fraudulent practices for the outbreak. State Secretary Michael R. Pompeo said in March that bad information from China “got us off the bend”. Last week, several House Republicans sent a letter to Pompeo stating that “misinformation from China has severely paralyzed global measures to combat the global pandemic in recent months.”
China’s data is likely to underestimate the actual number of infections and deaths, and Chinese-style authoritarianism silenced early reports of the outbreak and cost China and the world valuable time to stop the spread of the coronavirus. While China’s reporting delays and veils now make it a convenient scapegoat for inadequate preparation in the United States, its numbers and measures made it clear that the coronavirus was communicable and dangerous enough to overwhelm a country’s health system if it wasn’t was quickly contained.
The time for full accounting will come, but the current obsession with China’s statistics contests the fact that some prudent governments – such as South Korea and Taiwan – recognized the seriousness of the situation in China months ago and took swift measures to test and trace back it coordinate measures that protect their population. China’s own decisions at the end of January to prevent Wuhan and Hubei from leaving and to impose strict quarantines also signaled the serious threat.
A classified US intelligence report found that China has hidden information about some infections and deaths, minimizing the apparent extent and lethality of the coronavirus outbreak. China sent a warning on February 12 when it reported more than 15,000 new clinical symptom cases, indicating insufficient testing facilities to keep up with the Wuhan outbreak. Recent reports suggest that the Chinese authorities had identified more than 43,000 asymptomatic quarantine cases by the end of this month that were not included in the official censuses.
If China had previously published more complete infection rates, it would not be obvious that such data alone would have convinced skeptics to take the coronavirus more seriously. While reports of a large number of infected people have shown the virus to be infectious, reporting asymptomatic cases could have also reduced its lethality estimates, supporting the claim that it is like the flu. Until March 31, China’s official list of “confirmed cases” did not include asymptomatic cases that were rarely mentioned. An unfortunate consequence of this practice was the World Health Organization’s report in late February that asymptomatic transmission was rare.
As in any other country with a severe outbreak, China lacks asymptomatic cases because most asymptomatic people have not been tested. There is still great uncertainty about the transmission of the virus, not only in China but across Europe. Some estimate that millions have already been infected in the UK, Spain and Italy. Low mortality estimates in Germany, for example, reflect early action and a wider detection of asymptomatic cases compared to the Spanish or Italian outbreaks where the death rate is much higher.
With regard to reported deaths, China’s official toll should serve as a minimal estimate. Recent forecasts, based on around-the-clock crematoriums and the delivery of urns, point to a higher number. However, these indicators are not a reliable basis for determining the extent of the count.
The difficulty in estimating the actual death toll is not unique to China. France has recently recorded more than 2,000 deaths in nursing homes rather than hospitals. Patterns of all-cause mortality data in Italy and Spain suggest that even their high death toll from COVID-19 is underestimated.
Even if the numbers from China were wrongly low, there was enough information to indicate that the corona virus had the potential to become a devastating pandemic.
After banning Wuhan and most of Hubei Province on January 23, the Chinese authorities quarantined vulnerable people before doing positive tests or showing symptoms to slow the spread. The government also promised free nationwide testing and treatment, and deployed enormous resources, labor, and medical equipment in the most affected areas.
The extent of the danger became clear two months ago from the figures reported in China and the measures taken. South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have all taken swift measures to slow the outbreak even before the WHO declared an international public health emergency on January 30.
Unfortunately, during that time, political leaders in the United States wavered and minimized the severity of the crisis.
Instead of following the example of South Korea, Taiwan, or Germany to stay ahead of the curve, the Trump administration was more concerned about managing the “numbers” than about the health of Americans.
Jeremy L. Wallace, associate professor of government at Cornell University, is the author of “Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution and Survival of the Regime in China”. Jessica Chen Weiss, also an associate professor of government at Cornell University, is the author of “Mighty Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s External Relations”. ”