In the coming years, lessons will be drawn from the actions taken (or not taken) by those in power during the coronavirus pandemic. Although the crisis is still evolving, a lack of transparency at the onset of the outbreak has already had deadly consequences.
By trying to downplay the dangers of the coronavirus early on, authorities in China ensured that many more people would be exposed. At a time when the world was in desperate need of accurate information, government censors and police took steps to silence doctors and prevent critical data from reaching the outside world.
Thousands have died, millions more are already affected, and the colossal economic cost of the crisis has only begun to creep into view.
This is not a time for spin. It’s not a time for sugar-coating, downplaying, or otherwise misleading the public about the risks.
The extent to which the early handling of the coronavirus worsened its spread is up for debate, but repeating the same mistakes is not an option. When those in positions of power try to sweep public health risks under the rug, it creates a public-health time bomb.
A Brave Chinese Doctor and the Coronavirus Coverup
In late December 2019, Doctor Li Wenliang sent a private message to a group of his former medical school classmates. Li, who worked as an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital in China, warned his friends that 7 patients had developed an unknown respiratory disease. Maybe it was severe pneumonia — maybe it was something much worse.
The mysterious illness, which frightened Dr. Li, would come be known as COVID-19, short for coronavirus disease 2019.
At the time, Li did not know Wuhan would be ground zero for the 21st century’s worst pandemic yet. All he wanted to do was warn people he cared about. According to the South China Morning Post, Li asked his friends not to share his message, but to “remind your family members and loved ones to be on the alert.”
But Li’s post was shared, and it quickly gained wide circulation on social media. Chinese authorities were not happy. Apparently, the notion that a dangerous virus had taken root in Wuhan was not a message that the government would tolerate — whether it was the truth or not.
The police brought Li in for questioning and interrogated him. They cast Li and the other doctors as “rumormongers” who were spreading “lies.” Li was forced to take back what he said and make a public apology.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s all too clear that the fears that Li shared with his community was not rumormongering. It was the truth. Had Li’s truth been broadcast instead of shutdown, one wonders how many lives might have been spared.
Li Wenliang Becomes a Hero and a Martyr for Truth
Li returned to work, but he knew that if he were to continue making “false statements” on the internet, he would be prosecuted. Days after returning to the hospital, Li became sick himself and was ultimately diagnosed with coronavirus. He took to a hospital bed, but he vowed to return to the front lines when he recovered.
As the spread of coronavirus intensified, the public attitude in China changed. Instead of a rumormonger, Li was now viewed as a whistleblower who warned his country and the world about the grave danger ahead.
The more information that came out about Li’s story, the angrier people became that the government had shut him down in the first place. Li’s actions were eventually cleared of all charges by high-ranking Chinese medical officials and the Chinese Supreme People’s Court, which said Li and the other so-called “rumormongers” should be held in “high regard.”
This unknown doctor who had been silenced for trying to speak the truth had become a symbol of free speech, transparency, and the dire consequences of coverups. By the end of January, however, Li’s condition had worsened, and on February 7, he passed away with more than 17 million people livestreaming updates of his condition.
Li was 33-years-old. He left behind a wife who was expecting their second child.
Lies and Coverups Create Public Health Timebombs
In the case of coronavirus, the consequences of the repressive response from the Chinese government have been immediate and catastrophic. As bad as the coronavirus pandemic becomes, however, it will pass. It’s hard to think about that in the current climate, but life will return to normal.
This is not to say the coronavirus won’t leave a lasting mark on society. Globally, more than 200,000 people have tested positive for coronavirus, and the experts say the worst is yet to come. Still, coronavirus will eventually run its course the way of SARS, MERS, and other similar contagions.
Some coverups have consequences that span centuries and leave a public health nightmare for future generations. Consider asbestos, which was used for decades by asbestos-product manufacturers even though they were aware their products were associated with a severe risk of developing mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other horrific diseases.
When Doctor Irving Selikoff, a pioneer asbestos researcher, first warned people about the respiratory risks of the toxic mineral, he was demonized. The asbestos industry sought to undercut his research, attack his character, and forestall the important public health changes Dr. Selikoff was calling for.
To this day, some experts estimate that 40,000 Americans die each year as a result of an asbestos-related disease.
Or consider PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which were developed for all sorts of uses, including: non-stick frying pans, water-resistant jackets, and firefighting foam. The trouble with these chemicals is that they are toxic and don’t break down under normal environmental processes. This is why they are known as the forever chemicals.
The problem is that PFAS build up in the soil and groundwater. When humans are exposed to PFAS, it can cause a number of health issues. DuPont, one of the major PFAS manufacturers, was aware that people were getting sick and babies were being born with birth defects. Instead of alerting their workers and the world, they covered it up.
PFAS are now a global threat. Scientists have found PFAS everywhere on the planet they have looked, and the groundwater of more than 100 million Americans is already compromised.
Whenever those in control of information that affects the public health seek to keep it secret, they are putting lives in grave danger. Whether it is a government or a corporation, putting immediate public-relations needs over those of the general population is reckless and inappropriate.
In the end, it’s the citizens have to live with the truth, regardless of the lies.