Beijing's pandemic response is China's 'Chornobyl moment,' critics say

China is getting its own "Chornobyl moment" due to Beijing's attempts to hide and distort key scientific data on the COVID-19 pandemic and its crackdown on whistleblowers questioning the government's response to the outbreak, say the authors of an open letter published Tuesday.

Letter signed by 100 experts accuses China of making the pandemic worse by withholding facts

A Chinese woman wears a protective mask and sunglasses as she shops at a local market on March 4 in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

China is getting its own "Chornobyl moment" due to Beijing's attempts to hide and distort key scientific data on the COVID-19 pandemic and its crackdown on whistleblowers questioning the government's response to the outbreak, say the authors of an open letter published Tuesday.

The letter, signed by more than 100 experts, politicians and activists, compares China's response to the novel coronavirus outbreak to the Soviet Union's initial response to the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, when it took Moscow three days to acknowledge the accident and the threat its radioactive fallout posed to neighbouring countries.

The letter comes amid reports that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has launched a crackdown on Chinese journalists reporting critically on the COVID-19 crisis and is now censoring scientific research on the origins of the pandemic.

'A coverup' by Beijing

"While the exact source and spread of the virus are not clear yet, the question of origin is highly important, for the people of China and for all humankind: only by understanding how this global disaster could emerge we can prevent it from happening again," the letter says.

"The roots of the pandemic are in a coverup by CCP authorities in Wuhan, Hubei province."

China expert and former Canadian diplomat Charles Burton, one the people who signed the letter, said he was very concerned about Chinese disinformation campaigns suggesting that the novel coronavirus originated in the United States and was brought to China by U.S. athletes participating in the Military World Games in Wuhan last October, or that it may have originated in Italy.

Burton said the attempt by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian to blur the fact that the Chinese government had dissembled about person-to-person transmission of the novel coronavirus, and had not provided the World Health Organization (WHO) with accurate data, was a serious problem.

Misinformation kills: Burton

Based on that false information Canada received from the WHO, the federal government did not close Canadian airports to Chinese travellers until relatively late in the process, allowing the virus to spread in Canada, Burton told Radio Canada International.

"I think that it is important that the fact of the matter should be laid bare so that we can avoid future incidents where Chinese misinformation leads to the loss of Canadian lives," Burton said.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The WHO has been criticized by former Canadian diplomat Charles Burton for providing false information about the human to human spread of COVID-19 (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Had Canadian authorities known earlier that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be passed from human to human, they would have moved sooner to restrict travel from China and initiate more robust quarantine and contact tracing measures on travellers from there, Burton said.

WHO denies downplaying the pandemic

The open letter also claims that, under China's influence, the WHO initially downplayed the pandemic — a claim officials at the UN health body strenuously deny.

WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said that on Jan. 22, the organization issued a statement saying that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission in Wuhan but more investigation was needed to understand the full extent of transmission.

On Jan. 30, after the first cases of human-to-human transmission were reported outside of China, the WHO declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), Jasarevic said.

'A self-inflicted wound'

"We should never forget that China's Chornobyl moment was a self-inflicted wound," the letter says. 

The Communist government silenced Chinese doctors who wanted to warn other health professionals during the early stages of the outbreak, the letter added.

The letter claims that Dr. Ai Fen, who accused her superiors of trying to suppress her warnings about the novel coronavirus, can no longer appear in public after accepting a domestic media interview, while her colleague Dr. Li Wenliang  — who tried to warn his colleagues about the virus and was detained by Chinese authorities for "spreading rumours" — died while fighting the virus in Wuhan.

A recovered patient (C in wheelchair), 98, is discharged from Leishenshan Hospital, the makeshift hospital for the COVID-19 coronavirus patients, in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province in early March. (AFP via Getty Images)

Media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders says it believes that Ai, the head of the emergency department at Wuhan Central hospital, is now missing — apparently as a result of her criticism of censorship in an interview with a Chinese state-owned magazine.

More recently, reporters who have spoken critically about Beijing's response to the pandemic have disappeared and are probably being held in isolation in China's vast network of prisons and camps, Burton said.

"The are likely under Chinese imprisonment and being [subjected] to what is common in Chinese imprisonment, which would be torture and interrogation and sensory deprivation, such as we know from consular reports ... has been the case with our own citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor," Burton said.

The pandemic has laid bare the risks involved in the suppression of information and freedom of expression in China, Burton said.

"This doesn't just impact people inside China such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang, who are currently being subject to a program of cultural genocide that the Chinese government describes as reeducation, or other groups," Burton said. "This impacts the whole global community in an increasingly globalized and internationalized world."

Officials at the Chinese embassy in Ottawa could not be reached for comment.

Stop politicizing the pandemic, say Chinese scholars

Beijing has denied misrepresenting or hiding information about COVID-19 and has pointed to the fact that Chinese scientists openly shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus with the global scientific community on Jan. 12.

Communist officials argue that Western countries wasted the precious time bought for them by the tremendous sacrifices made by tens of millions of Chinese citizens — who endured weeks of severe quarantine measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In an earlier open letter, a group of 100 Chinese scholars urged their American counterparts to refrain from "politicizing the COVID-19 pandemic."

"Facing the most dangerous infectious disease in a century, these criticisms help neither China, the U.S., nor the world, to curb the spread of the virus," the letter by Chinese scholars read.

The letter argued that questions about the origin of the virus "are unimportant and finger-pointing is demeaning and hurtful to everyone."

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