It is widely known that when the new coronavirus emerged in December 2019, the Chinese government downplayed the pandemic threat for several critical weeks. Less commonly known is those same authorities deliberately sacrificed health workers to maintain their lies.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) calculated cover-up enabled the coronavirus to go global. By silencing doctors, Beijing not only fueled this pandemic but also compromised the world’s ability to spot the next one.
Why the CCP decided to cover up the outbreak is unclear. It may have been a reluctance to cancel political meetings, a fear of public panic—especially around the Chinese New Year—the embarrassment of another pathogen being born on Chinese soil, or the simple instinct to squash bad news ingrained into officials in an authoritarian system.
Pandemics are like wars. The first casualty is truth.
Instead of notifying the World Health Organization (WHO) about the outbreak of atypical pneumonia and evidence of human spread, the authorities censored information, concealed the virus, and silenced doctors who tried to warn their colleagues. Hospital leaders refused to authorize masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE) on the grounds that it would cause panic. As patients infected health care workers and health care workers infected one another, hospital leaders insisted that spread among humans was impossible—that no staff members were infected—even altering diagnoses that suggested otherwise.
Beijing’s official line through Jan. 19, 2020 was that the outbreak began in late December 2019, that all cases had been infected by an unidentified animal source at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, and that no health care workers were infected. But even when the government conceded human spread on Jan. 20, it reported only a fraction of the real numbers.
These falsehoods influenced the WHO’s decision not to immediately declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, a step it had previously taken over Ebola, Zika, and the H1N1 virus. It also informed the widespread belief that COVID-19 spread in a similar manner to influenza—by large droplets landing on surfaces and transferred by touching rather than through airborne microdroplets. That misdirection contributed to the early and persistent focus in the West on surface disinfection and hand hygiene rather than masks—considerably more effective.
The lack of information also meant some important early trends were missed. For example, most infected staff were in non-urgent specialties, such as ophthalmology, family medicine, and elective surgery. These specialties are not considered high risk, and patients were less likely to be sick or symptomatic—meaning health workers were less likely to wear masks than their colleagues in emergency respiratory medicine and intensive care units.
The delayed understanding of transmission dynamics cost the lives of unknown numbers of health care workers in China, contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands more abroad, and superpowered the pandemic.