Coronavirus outbreak: What went wrong in the early days

[Reporter: Terence McKenna] ♪ ♪ [Reporter] This was the scene on
the evening of January 24th in China. The Chinese New Year is celebrated by
an astonishing television spectacular featuring thousands of singers and dancers. Promoting the accomplishments of the country
and the Communist Party. ♪ ♪ But this was four days after news of
the COVID-19 outbreak and so a section was added at the last-minute focusing on the unfolding epidemic in
the city of Wuhan. TV presenters cheered on the brave healthcare workers confronting the deadly COVID-19 virus. All this was quite a marked departure from how the epidemic was treated weeks earlier when it was covered up by the Chinese authorities. Now, infectious disease experts around the world are focusing on the lessons of the COVID-19 epidemic. Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader China
has had since Mao Zedong. The entire Chinese bureaucracy and
security apparatus seeks to please him and reinforce his highest announced priority:
Stability. Pulitzer prize-winning author Laurie Garrett specializes in public health and infectious diseases. In China, she saw the SARS epidemic covered up
by the Communist Party. [Garrett] So, it’s created a culture inside China of
cover up, lying, hiding the truth. Very much like what I experienced in
the old Soviet Union. Where everybody wants to please the higher-ups. [Reporter] Garrett was working in China through
that outbreak 17 years ago when the government was notoriously dishonest about every aspect of it. She saw the same thing happening this time after the outbreak was first acknowledged
on December 31st. [Garrett] They announced officially from the city government, “There seems to be a bit of a problem.” “Don’t worry about it.” “We have it well under control.” “It has nothing whatsoever to do with SARS.” “Everybody remain calm.” [Reporter] The People’s Daily official newspaper ignored the announced outbreak on January 1st. In fact, there was no mention of the epidemic for 20 consecutive days through January 20th. Dr. Yanzhong Huang is an infectious disease expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. [Huang] It was interpreted in a way that this is nothing serious, you know. That it’s not going to lead to efficient human-to-human transmission so there was a lack of effective response to the outbreak at the local level. When an outbreak occurs, the time to respond is as early as possible. When you have a handful of human cases. When you actually can figure out, John gave it to Mary, who gave it to Susie, who gave it to Paul. The response was exactly the opposite. [Reporter] Almost 1/3 of Chinese city dwellers eat wild animals. This is how novel viruses jump from animals to humans. The SARS epidemic was eventually traced to the consumption of a small raccoon- like creature called a civet. The number-one suspect in this epidemic is
the Pangolin. An anteater like animal that is consumed because of its supposed healing qualities for many diseases. The first outbreak of COVID-19 was traced to the live animal market in Wuhan that was quickly shut down. Today, the government ordered live animal markets closed nationwide. Kelly Lee is an infectious disease expert at Simon Fraser University. [Lee] These markets are — a lot of them are illegal. And so they’re not well regulated. This is a really dangerous combination if we’re looking at disease, microbes, pathogens, jumping species. It’s a perfect opportunity to do that. [Reporter] The Chinese government released these videos supposedly showing the COVID-19 virus being fought by an elaborate campaign to spray airplane exteriors and fumigate entire cities. [Garrett] There are a lot of videos like this. Of these mysterious fogging machines spraying god-knows-what all over the place. I can’t think of any substance you could
spray in an open street in the manner that’s depicted that would have any
impact on a virus at all. So it’s very hard to understand what, besides public relations, was the point. On January 28, director-general of the
WHO, the World Health Organization Dr. Tedros Adhanom braces came to Beijing for a personal meeting with President Xi Jinping At that time, China was reporting 4,537 cases of infection from COVID-19. An independent assessment in The Lancet medical journal estimated
that as of January 25th there were 75,800 in the city of Wuhan alone but Dr. Tedros bent over backwards to praise China’s handling of the outbreak. [Lee] He has to work with the government and he has to ensure that lines of communication remain open. So his words were to ensure that you know the Chinese relations remained positive. [Reporter] At the Tedros-Xi Jinping meeting the Chinese government reportedly insisted that the WHO delay any proclamation of a global health emergency. Dr. Tedros complied. [Huang] I believe indeed that the WHO has being following the right procedure in terms of responding to the outbreak. And although I do believe that they could have acted earlier. [Garrett] Look, WHO has e been through this game before with the exact same country. The index of suspicion ought to have been much higher. We have a WHO that we’ve, you know, created collectively. That we’ve given limited resources to and limited powers. And we’re now expecting it to do things that it was ever designed to do. It’s not a global health SWAT team. [Reporter] It turns out that Chinese authorities have six times changed the method used to tabulate infected people. Which has medical experts around the world now doubting the value of their official figures. [Garrett] When you started seeing this long period where the numbers either didn’t budge or even on one day, went backwards. To me, that just looked like completely fabricated figures. I hope the Chinese government, you know, not just the central government but also the local government as well truly draw the lessons from the outbreak and takes measures to improve the transparency and openness, you know to make sure that this time, the same tragic is not going to happen again. [Garrett] I’m very nervous that as everybody is now returning from the lunar holiday extension and eventually starts going back to work and back to school that we’re going to see a resurgence. A sort of you know epidemic number two. Gabriel Leung, whose an epidemiologist in Hong Kong has predicted that this actually could end up infecting 65% of all human beings on earth. [Reporter] Scientists are still figuring out the death rate which appears to be much higher in China than outside it. But they say that even if this outbreak is contained we need to quickly learn the lessons from it. With millions of people on international flights every day it is likely only a matter of time before the world faces a truly global pandemic. Terence McKenna, CBC News, Toronto

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