China’s Censorship Helped Start a Pandemic. Can Free Speech End It?

Li Wenliang died at 2:58 on February 7th, 2020. We deeply regret and mourn this. When Wuhan Central Hospital announced
the death of the 34 year old ophthalmologist on the social media site
Weibo there was an outpouring of sadness and anger in China. It was one of the
first signs that something far more troubling was happening in the city of
Wuhan than the Chinese government was letting on. When Wenliang had tried to
alert his colleagues via WeChat that he was witnessing an alarming spike in
respiratory illnesses, the local government forced him and eight other
people to sign apologetic admissions of rumor-mongering and that was the
beginning of a disinformation campaign by government leaders around the world
that would help turn a crisis into a global pandemic. Chinese officials later
assured the public they’d found no human-to-human transmissions of the viral
pneumonia he’d posted about and that the disease was preventable and controllable. In January government officials shut down the food
market where they suspected the disease had originated. Nine days later a 61 year
old man who regularly shopped at the market became the first known fatality.
But what government officials failed to tell the public was that his wife, who had never visited the market, also caught the virus, meaning that it was transmittable among humans. As the hospital ward filled and workers began to fall ill China’s politicians still refused to acknowledge for weeks that
human to human transmission was happening even staging a 40,000 family
potluck in Wuhan and instructing hospitals not to use the words viral
pneumonia on lung scan reports as the death toll in China climbed the national
government pointed fingers at local authorities and Wu Hans mayor said his
hands were tied by a national law requiring approval from central
authorities before declaring an epidemic in late January Lee texted a New York
Times reporter from his hospital bed that if the officials had disclosed the
information about the epidemic earlier I think it would have been a lot better
there should have been more openness and transparency concern for the need to
better guide public opinion on the issue turned out to be President Xi’s
rationale for refusing to disclose human to human transmission for several weeks
in February authorities jailed an act serviced who dared criticize she’s
handling of the crisis a journalist reporting stories inside Wuhan critical
of the government’s response disappeared as did a wealthy tycoon who publicly
blamed the Communist Party’s speech restrictions for worsening the spread as
the first u.s. patients began testing positive the Trump administration
downplayed the threat it’s going to disappear one day it’s like a miracle it
will disappear there’s no reason to panic because we have done so good is it
real it absolutely is real there is no question about it but you saw the
president the other day the flu is real 15 people and the 15 within a couple of
days is going to be down to close to zero I think this is going to be what
brings down the president that’s what this is all about the lag in testing was
in fact a failing do you take responsibility for that yeah no I don’t
take responsibility at all but there’s also an enormous difference between the
country that jails dissenting voices and the US with its strong First Amendment
protections the media and political class have derided Twitter and Facebook
for lacking adequate gatekeepers but it was through these platforms that medical
professionals technologists epidemiologists and everyday citizens
bypassed the media and the government to implore their fellow citizens to act a
Twitter thread from a member of a seattle-based medical team that defied
the CDC to run tests and discovered an outbreak in the city in sequence the
genome got the word out about the value of social distancing long before the
federal government did yell social scientist and physician Nicholas
Christakis explained the science of disease spread to further promote social
distancing and self isolation in threads shared thousands of times On January
30th technologists and venture capitalists bulgy Srinivasan asked on
Twitter what if this corona virus is the pandemic that Public Health people have
been warning about four years and then began encouraging the cancellation of
events pleading for more early testing and warning about the lack of reliable
information coming out of China he was critical of early media coverage that
often downplayed the threat of the outbreak with facile comparisons to the
flu and flippant dismissals of companies in Silicon Valley that began taking
precautions early of course this non-issue turned out to be very much
YouTube and it weren’t simply getting the story wrong but they were actively
attempting to shame and silence people getting the story to bright
and some of them you know later in sincerely apologized others wrote you
know columns about how they got the story long the slightly more insincere
women once Trump started adopting their early talking points about how the virus
was just flu several of them have reversed themselves and pretended you
know they’ve been taking it seriously all along as the government continues to
stumble the decentralized response has been forthcoming with individuals
voluntarily self isolating after the flatten the curve chart was circulated
widely on social media doctors in Seattle defied the federal government to
test for Cova nineteen states like Colorado implemented their own
drive-through testing stations and mayors and governors began taking
extreme measures to protect the spread within dense city centers but to keep
the decentralized response going information channels will need to remain
as open as possible to this day dissenters in China are being muzzled or
worse and the Trump administration has classified several top-level coronavirus
meetings American social media is chaotic confusing and full of bad actors
and misinformation wild speculation abounds
but that wild freewheeling conversation keeps us safer than a censored press or
even a free press controlled by professionals
the contagious spread of information in a race against the contagious spread of
the disease remains a powerful weapon when confronting this global emergency you

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