China's Media Censorship Could Have Cost Thousands of Lives by Preventing Early Coronavirus Warning, Journalism Watchdog Argues

Thousands of lives could have been saved if China allowed its media freedom to operate independently, the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) organization has claimed.

RSF published a statement Tuesday detailing how Chinese authorities suppressed whistle blowers and early warnings of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, which has since spread across the globe and killed more than 19,000 people.

"Without the control and censorship imposed by the authorities, the Chinese media would have informed the public much earlier of the severity of the coronavirus epidemic, sparing thousands of lives and perhaps avoiding the current pandemic," the RSF statement argued.

The pandemic originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December, likely at a so-called "wet market" where live and dead animals are sold.

The Chinese Communist Party was accused—by President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others—of silencing whistleblowers and hiding the severity of the outbreak, which soon spread beyond its borders.

Tight restrictions appear to have stemmed the spread of COVID-19 in China, and officials have said that the peak of the outbreak has passed. There have now been more cases and deaths outside China than inside.

But RSF cited a University of Southampton analysis published earlier this month that argued the number of coronavirus cases in China—which is rated 177th out of 180 in the 2019 RSF World Press Freedom Index—could have been reduced by 86 percent if the restrictive measures implemented on January 20 had been put in place two weeks earlier.

RSF argued that the first red flag was missed in October, when the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security ran a simulated coronavirus pandemic alongside the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The simulation produced 65 million deaths in 18 months, a result RSF argued would have sparked interest and concern in China if media organizations were able to cover it or citizens were able to see it online.

Local Wuhan officials failed to inform the media of the outbreak, even when there were dozens of patients suffering the same mysterious illness and symptoms—several of whom had visited the Huanan fish market where the virus is believed to have originated. The market was closed on January 1.

Dr. Lu Xiaohong was among the first medical workers to suspect that something seismic was occurring, having been told of multiple infections among staff at Wuhan City Hospital as early as December 25.

RSF argued that if journalists' sources did not face such strict punishments for speaking out, Lu may have raised the alarm and forced officials to acknowledge the problem.

A group of whistleblowers tried to do exactly that, but were arrested for circulating "false rumors" on January 3. Eight of these whistleblowers have since died of coronavirus.

Though China officially alerted the World Health Organization to the situation on December 31, officials moved to censor a number of related keywords on the country's tightly-controlled billion-user WeChat platform.

By January 5, a team at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre had sequenced the virus, but the vital information was not released publicly. Only on January 11—the day the first coronavirus death was confirmed—did researchers leak the genome to open source platforms, handing the international community a priceless element in their nascent hunt for a vaccine.

The first case outside China was confirmed on January 13. RSF argued that the international community "would have taken stock of the crisis and better anticipated it" if Chinese media had been able to cover the issue since December. This may have slowed its spread and avoided "its transformation into a pandemic," the organization argued.

Newsweek has contacted the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. for a response to RSF's assertions.

RSF, China, coronavirus, censorship, pandemic, journalists
Two Chinese police are pictured in front of the Tiananmen Gate on March 16, 2020 in Beijing, China. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images/Getty