As the crisis continues, it’s becoming more difficult to pinpoint government efforts to downplay the severity of the outbreak. (Reuters: Thomas Peter)
Doctors reprimanded for “spreading rumours”.
Multiple accounts of families in Wuhan with deceased relatives who never got tested.
An army of state media workers being sent to the epicentre to help “guide” public opinion about the outbreak.
They’re the signs that have fuelled concerns that, 17 years after the Chinese Government’s disastrous cover-up of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, authorities may be engaged in similar practices.
Is it actually true?
It’s the question people abroad ask me the most.
The evidence shows that in the initial weeks of the outbreak authorities in Wuhan reprimanded whistleblowers — including at least one doctor who contracted the virus – for alerting others to the danger.
Officials also downplayed the severity of the virus, disastrously telling people it likely couldn’t be transferred between humans, when they already had cases that strongly suggested it could, including the infection of 14 hospital workers.
A government banner in Beijing tells people to take “strong protection, reduce going out, don’t panic, trust science and don’t spread rumours”. (ABC News: Bill Birtles)
But since those early missteps, it has become trickier to pinpoint efforts to downplay or obfuscate the severity of the outbreak.
China’s top investigative journalistic outlets have been allowed leeway to report from the epicentre, and the whistleblowers have even been receiving some praise in state media.
A shortage of test kits and numerous reports of patients turned away, untested, from hospitals that were already full has helped form a general consensus on the ground that the official figures aren’t keeping up with the real number of infections.
But even as testing has improved and the number of confirmed cases has skyrocketed, no-one believes authorities can accurately document new diagnoses for such a fast-spreading virus in real time — particularly one where some patients have spread it before showing symptoms.
The Chinese Government’s centralised control for distributing the statistics is certainly playing a role in slowing down the release of information, a factor noted by the embattled Wuhan Mayor in an interview.
Government deploys journalists for ‘public opinion guidance’
Wuhan city and Hubei province are still regarded as the epicentre of the coronavirus and a priority for containment. (AP: Dake Kang)
In messages seen by the ABC, a specialist doctor who works in a major Beijing hospital warns people in an encrypted chat group that the outbreak in the capital is more serious than is being reported.
His choice of a foreign encrypted messaging app — instead of the far more popular WeChat — reflects rules that could see him disciplined for disseminating information through non-approved channels.
While such regulations could be seen to stifle and suppress information about the outbreak, they’re not new, but a standard part of China’s tightly controlled information system.
More intriguing is the announcement, trumpeted by state TV, that the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department has dispatched 300 journalists to Wuhan and Hubei province.
According to state media, China’s leader Xi Jinping has tasked them with “clear requirements” for “education and public opinion guidance”, to “help win the battle to control the epidemic”.
Again, “public opinion guidance” is a standard directive for journalists in China, but the fanfare around this media group has many wondering if information coming from non-government sources in the epicentre might start facing a clampdown.
There’s a general consensus on the ground that official figures aren’t keeping up with the real number of infections. (AP: Chinatopix)
On Wednesday, a local health commission official in Hubei described the outbreak as not just a disaster, but a “man-made” one, quoting conversations with doctors in Wuhan.
The post received 340,000 likes on the Twitter-like platform Weibo before disappearing.
It spread further in private groups on WeChat before being censored.
Will the Communist Party’s assert its instinct for control?
The concern about censorship is heightened because China’s Government is now less than one month away from its carefully crafted annual political showpiece — the National People’s Congress, an event that brings thousands of delegates from across the country to the capital.
In the current crisis it’s unthinkable that it could go ahead on time, but in normal circumstances it would be unthinkable that anything could be important enough to derail it.
We’ll see in the coming days whether the brave journalists of relatively independent media outlets Caijing, Caixin and others continue publishing investigative reports from Wuhan.
Or if the Communist Party’s instinct for control of the narrative takes priority.
Jeremy Fernandez will host a 30-minute special on coronavirus on Friday, February 7 from 7.30pm AEDT on News Channel, featuring a guest panel, explainers on how the virus unfolded and myth-busting the misinformation. The special will be repeated on ABC TV at 10pm
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