What did they know and when did they know it?
These are the questions being asked of the Chinese government, the World Health Organization, and now the Trump administration. When did they know there was an epidemic of coronavirus? Did the Chinese cover up the facts? Was the WHO complicit in a coverup? Did at least some U.S. officials know what was really going on all the time?
The first question seems the easiest to answer: There did seem to be a coverup.
In late January, Beijing was reacting in character: an authoritarian state in denial. Instead of warning their own and other peoples of the danger, Chinese officials were acting as if keeping the truth from getting out was their sacred trust. The initial response was to arrest and punish citizens for “spreading rumors” about the disease.
In the ensuing months, as the frightening truth got out, there were indications from those at the top that there was indeed a coverup. On March 19, the authorities apologized to the family of Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who was officially reprimanded for blowing the whistle, according to NPR. The apology came six weeks after Wenliang died of COVID-19.
But even then there was no explicit admission of a coverup from the Communist Party that rules China. Even as late as April 4, the Foreign Ministry line was denial, claiming — incredibly — that its handling of the virus had been “open and transparent.” Spokeswoman Hua Chunying condemned as “slander” a report in Bloomberg citing American officials that charged China with deliberately underreporting the crisis.
Yet, more recently, Beijing revised its coronavirus figures upward — way upward. The death toll from the pandemic in Wuhan — which China originally told the world was 2,579 — was actually 3,869. Officials attributed the 50% inaccuracy to “incorrect reporting, delays and omissions,” according to Reuters. Not exactly a mea culpa.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang rebuffed Australia’s demand for a probe, saying that such accusations disrespect “the Chinese people’s tremendous efforts and sacrifices” in fighting coronavirus.
The insolence of those Australians!
The second question, about the role of the World Health Organization, is perhaps less clear. The WHO appeared willing to accept whatever Beijing said, and passed it on to the rest of the world. As late as February 29, when the danger of contagion was evident, WHO Director-General (DG) Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus opposed border closings, saying they would “unnecessarily interfere with international trade and travel.”
That policy cost thousands of lives.
WHO also continues to deny any malfeasance. The defense that they have no power to conduct investigations or to collect information without the consent of countries, and so were helplessly dependent on Beijing, rings hollow. Even if they could not force their way into Wuhan, or go in undercover, that doesn’t mean they could not have insisted on access, and threaten to expose China’s lack of transparency if they didn’t cooperate.
Then there is the claim that they really did warn the world in time. This week, the Washington Post revealed that “more than a dozen U.S. researchers, physicians and public health experts, many of them from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were working full time at the WHO late last year and transmitted real-time information about its discovery and spread in China to the Trump administration.”
But this is hardly a vindication. There is no proof that the information reached decision-makers in Washington. Even if it did, it is not the same as a formal message to the U.S. government or issuing a public warning.
President Trump has been criticized for suspending $400 million in U.S. funding to the WHO, pending a review “to assess [its] role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”
The European Union came down on the side of the WHO, saying Trump has “no reason” to freeze the funding. Which is odd, if not completely counterfactual, since there’s plenty of reason.
The U.S. is by far the biggest funder of the WHO, and as such wields the most clout. Suspending their money is probably the only way to get anything changed there.
It’s important to get to the bottom of it all, in order to know what should be done to fix a system that indisputably went awry.
To be sure, any investigation of the WHO should assume Tedros innocent until proven guilty. He may well have been acting in good faith on the information available to him.
But it’s vital to investigate in order to obtain factual answers to these questions.