In the early 1990s, HIV spread like wildfire in the Chinese provinces of Henan, Hebei, Anhui, Shaanxi, and Shanxi. Between 200,000 and 300,000 were infected because of the trade in blood and blood products by thousands of public and commercial blood and plasma collection centers.
These centers, whose actions were poorly policed and controlled, led to the infection of thousands with HIV and other blood-borne pathogens. A lot of them reused needles. Plasma was often pooled and red cells mixed up without testing.
The Chinese government denied this was going on and for years resisted all attempts by outside agencies like the WHO to bring this under control. It was only after two female doctors from Henan – Shuping Wang and Gao Yaojie – blew the whistle on the outbreak that the government moved to ban the blood centers and deal with the outbreak.
In November 2002, a contagious respiratory illness broke out in Guangdong Province in China. Over the next few months as the disease -which came to be known as SARS – spread, the Chinese government repressed information about the disease, initially from its own people and when that was not possible anymore, from the rest of the world. China’s Ministry of Central Publicity ordered the “three nos”: no talking to the media about SARS, no talking to the public about treating the disease and no tattling to WHO if its experts come calling.
Unfortunately, even as they tried to hide the disease, it left the confines of China and spread to Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Canada. In the process, it even killed the WHO doctor who first recognized the disease for what it was in Vietnam.
In spite of repeated efforts by the WHO officials to travel to China for an inspection starting in early February, it was not until April 3 that the Chinese government allowed that. By then there were hundreds of patients all over the country.
The WHO inspectors were allowed to see patients in 3 hospitals in Beijing – the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, the Nos. 302 and 309 People’s Liberation Army Hospitals.
Before the WHO inspectors got to the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, “31 coughing and shivering staff members who had caught SARS from patients were hastily loaded into ambulances and driven around until the investigators left”. At the No. 302 People’s Liberation Army Hospital, “where two wards had been filled to capacity, only a handful of the ailing were on site for the WHO visit.” 46 patients were yanked out of their beds at the No. 309 People’s Liberation Army Hospital and moved to a hotel just before the WHO inspectors got there.
In spite of hiding patients from the WHO, the inspectors still got an idea of the degree of spread and warned of “super-spreaders”.
Shortly after the visit of the WHO inspectors a Chinese doctor called Jiang Yanyong, who was very unhappy with how the Chinese government was handling the outbreak, wrote an 800-word letter titled “Beijing’s SARS Attack” and sent it to Chinese Central Television -4 (CCTV4) and Phoenix TV (Hong Kong). In the letter, he detailed how the Chinese government was hiding the severity of the outbreaks and the number of patients infected. The letter somehow landed in the hands of the folks at Time magazine, who published it on Tuesday, April 8.
This exposed the cover-up and finally forced the Chinese government to own up. It would later apologize for its behavior. By July 2003 when the outbreak died down, 8078 had been infected worldwide with 774 dead.
I do not even have to touch on the story of Li Wenliang and other doctors in Wuhan who tried to warn the officials in Hubei Province in December of 2019 about the COVID-19 outbreak.
With a history fraught with such deception, why did the world think the Chinese really were honest with the numbers when COVID-19 broke out?
The China of 2003 was not as powerful as the China of 2020. Back then, the healthcare infrastructure was subpar. They were not even the ones who sequenced the genome of the then novel SARS-CoV virus (the Canadians did) and there was not that economic clout. Even then, it took the WHO close to 8 weeks of pushing to get access to Chinese hospitals. And even then, they hid patients.
Yet, with a China more powerful and developed than that of 2003, some expected the WHO, an outfit of epidemiologists, virologists, bacteriologists, immunologists, and public health types to have been able to force themselves into China to inspect their hospitals. Really?
Maybe the WHO should have just accused the Chinese of lying without any proof. What would that have achieved?
Even the CDC, backed by the full force of the US government was denied entry. Even the CIA with all its spy satellites and agents had no idea of what was going on in China as COVID-19 raged in the months of January and February.
Anyone blaming the WHO for the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak; anyone thinking officials from this public health body should have forced themselves into China to count the sick and the dead; anyone thinking the WHO could have single-handedly held the spread of COVID-19 at bay…really has no idea of what the WHO is, refuses to accept the fact that China is a superpower and has a history of falsifying and hiding data during disease outbreaks and reveals an amazing naïveté about how contagious respiratory diseases spread and the role each nation needs to play to stop the spread and mitigate its social and economic impact.
And anyone who thinks the WHO should be defunded for those reasons… during a raging pandemic caused by a highly contagious respiratory virus, against which very few are immune and for which neither vaccines nor an effective treatment exists…is clearly very, very uninformed.
And yet, here we are. Ah well!
Stay safe, y’all!
Nana Dadzie Ghansah is an anesthesiologist who lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky
Feature photo: Courtesy of pikrepo.com