If China's health authorities are to be believed — a big if — then the government's mass quarantine policies have been working. According to the country's health ministry, there were only 40 new cases of the virus reported on Monday, a remarkable decline considering that there were 2,000 new cases a day in China only last month.
All of this has led some Western observers to wonder whether the authoritarian model works when a country is facing down a pandemic. Chuck Todd captured this view on "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "How uncomfortable is it that perhaps China's authoritarian ways did prevent this?" he asked. "Meaning, had China been a free and open society this might have spread faster?"
It's almost a fair question. The U.S., which is a free and open society, doesn't have enough kits to test first responders, let alone the general population. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, is minimizing the dangers of the coronavirus in his tweets. In California's Sacramento County, officials called off a 14-day quarantine because its health system wouldn't be able to manage the caseload.
No wonder the Chinese Communist Party is crowing. On Tuesday, President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan for the first time since the outbreak.
But it's a mistake to take China's chest-puffing propaganda at face value. Two things can be true at the same time: The spread of the virus has slowed because the regime has taken draconian measures to isolate millions of people. And the Chinese government's secrecy and repression are one main cause for the spread of the coronavirus in the first place.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made this point politely on "Meet the Press" when asked about the efficacy of Chinese authoritarianism.
"They were saying at the end of December that all that cluster of 24 cases were related to contact with an animal reservoir," he said. "That wasn't the case, because there was human-to-human-to-human going on a few weeks before."
Fauci gave the Chinese regime the benefit of the doubt, postulating that perhaps health authorities did not know this.
Meanwhile, in the first weeks of the outbreak, Chinese authorities went out of their way to punish doctors and health professionals who rang the alarm. Two nurses who wrote a letter to the British medical journal the Lancet, detailing the lack of equipment and horrific conditions in a Wuhan isolation ward, were forced to retract their letter soon after it was published. The Shanghai-based laboratory that published the first genome of the coronavirus in January was closed the next day for what authorities called "rectification."
And then there is the Chinese doctor who first warned of the virus before it was identified in December. Instead of amplifying his warning, Chinese police forced him to sign a confession that he was spreading false rumors. He died of the coronavirus in February.
State repression is not limited to doctors and nurses.
The regime has also targeted independent journalists. Li Zehua, a former anchor for China Central Television who resigned his post to livestream updates on coronavirus from Wuhan, went silent last month after Chinese authorities appear to have detained him. Chinese censors last month scrubbed their country's internet of a story by an independent news outlet that alleged Chinese labs had identified the coronavirus in December, but were ordered to stop the tests and destroy the samples.
Today the Chinese regime is telling a very different story. It now imposes the kind of travel restrictions it mocked as an overreaction a month ago. It acknowledges the danger of the coronavirus that first emerged in Wuhan last year.
That's a silver lining of sorts. But the rest of the world should not forget China's initial reaction and what it says about the regime: When faced with an outbreak of a new and deadly virus, authorities moved to suppress the information and punish those who discovered it.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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