As the coronavirus spreads around the world, U.S. officials who downplayed the risk have repeatedly blamed China’s fake data and deceptive practices for the outbreak. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said in March that poor information from China has “put us behind the curve.” Last week, several House Republicans sent a letter to Pompeo stating that “misinformation from China over the past several months has severely crippled global action to combat the global pandemic.”
China’s data very likely understate the true number of infections and deaths, and Chinese-style authoritarianism silenced early reports of the outbreak, costing China and the world valuable time to stop the coronavirus’ spread. While China’s reporting delays and obfuscations now make it a convenient scapegoat for inadequate preparation in the U.S., its numbers and actions made clear that the coronavirus was communicable and dangerous enough to overwhelm a country’s health system if not swiftly contained.
The time will come for a full accounting, but the current obsession with China’s statistics denies the reality that some prudent governments — such as South Korea and Taiwan — recognized the seriousness of the situation in China months ago and took swift action to coordinate testing and tracing measures that protected their people. China’s own decisions in late January to prevent exit from and impose strict quarantines in Wuhan and Hubei province, likewise, signaled the dire threat.
A classified U.S. intelligence report has concluded that China hid information about some infections and deaths, minimizing the apparent scale and lethality of the coronavirus outbreak. China sent a warning flare Feb. 12 when it reported more than 15,000 new cases based on clinical symptoms, indicating insufficient testing capabilities to keep up with the outbreak in Wuhan. More recent reports suggest that by the end of that month, Chinese authorities had found more than 43,000 asymptomatic cases among those quarantined, which were not included in official counts.
Had China published more complete rates of infection earlier on, it is not obvious that such data alone would have convinced skeptics to take the coronavirus more seriously. While reports of larger numbers of infected people would have shown the virus’ infectiousness, reporting asymptomatic cases could also have reduced estimates of its lethality, supporting assertions that it’s like the flu. Until March 31, China’s official tally of “confirmed cases” did not include asymptomatic cases, which were rarely mentioned. One unfortunate consequence of this practice was the World Health Organization’s late February report that asymptomatic transmission was rare.
China, like every other country facing a major outbreak, is missing many asymptomatic cases from its counts because most asymptomatic people have not been tested. There is still great uncertainty about the transmission of the virus, not just in China but across Europe, with some estimating that millions have already been infected in Britain, Spain and Italy. Estimates of low lethality in Germany, for example, reflect early action and more widespread detection of asymptomatic cases compared with the Spanish or Italian outbreaks, where case fatality is much higher.
As for reported deaths, China’s official toll should serve as a minimal estimate; recent projections based on crematoriums running around the clock and the delivery of funeral urns suggest a higher number, but those indicators are not a reliable basis for determining the scale of undercounting.
The difficulty of estimating the true death toll is not unique to China; France recently added more than 2,000 deaths to its totals that occurred in nursing homes rather than hospitals. Patterns of all-cause mortality data in Italy and Spain suggest that even their large tallies for deaths from COVID-19 are underestimates.
Even if the numbers out of China were spuriously low, there was enough information to indicate that the coronavirus had the potential to become a devastating pandemic.
After locking down Wuhan and most of Hubei province on Jan. 23, the Chinese authorities quarantined at-risk people before they tested positive or exhibited symptoms to reduce further spread. The government also promised free testing and treatment available nationwide and deployed enormous levels of resources, workers and medical equipment to the hardest-hit areas.
The magnitude of the danger was abundantly clear two months ago from the numbers reported and actions taken in China. South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore all imposed swift measures to slow the outbreak even before the WHO declared an international public health emergency Jan. 30.
Unfortunately, during this same time, political leaders in the United States were dithering and minimizing the severity of the crisis.
Rather than follow the example of South Korea, Taiwan or Germany to get ahead of the curve, the Trump administration worried more about managing “the numbers” than the health of Americans.
Jeremy L. Wallace, an associate professor of government at Cornell University, is the author of “Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China.” Jessica Chen Weiss, also an associate professor of government at Cornell, is the author of “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations.”