A doctor checks a patient's CT scan at a temporary hospital set up for Covid-19-infected patients in Wuhan. Photo: STA / AFP

Cue spooky music and roll the credits. China’s version of the Covid-19 horror story is starting to resemble an episode from The X-Files.

The 1990s sci-fi series turned conspiracy theories into compelling viewing by dressing up escapism into award-winning entertainment.

Yet real life plotlines can be just as bizarre such as Beijing’s claim that the origin of the coronavirus epidemic might “not” be China.

Surprisingly, Dr Zhong Nanshan put forward that scenario last month and since he was the epidemiologist who discovered SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, his comments carry enormous weight in the medical professional.

“Though Covid-19 was first discovered in China, it does not mean that it originated from China,” he said at a media conference in the sprawling port city of Guangzhou in the southern part of the country.  

“We need greater international cooperation. This is a human disease, not a national disease,” he added.

At the last count, the death toll in the world’s second-largest economy was 3,042 with 80,552 people infected. Overseas, the total number of deaths has reached 343 with 17,868 people infected after the virus went global and spread to more than 80 nations.

Still, most of the victims lived in Hubei in central China after the outbreak was first discovered in the provincial capital of Wuhan in December. Ground zero was a wet market complete with livestock.

Politically, this has been a public relations nightmare for President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party. Accusations of incompetence have been leveled against the administration for its early response to the crisis, as well as claims of a “cover-up” by officials in Wuhan.

Changing the narrative became a priority for Beijing and involved a diet of drip-feed diatribes by China’s state-run media.

“Early moves by the Chinese government to conceal the nature and scale of the situation, coupled with their strident domestic restrictions, cast widespread doubt on the reliability of epidemiological surveillance,” Dominic Meagher, the chairman of the Australasia Strategy Group, said.

“A history of official dishonesty and a chronic lack of transparency added to the problem,” he wrote for the Lowy Institute, the Sydney-based think tank.

Even during that initial period of the epidemic in January, the World Health Organisation was facing “international criticism” over what was considered excessive praise for China.

Michael Collins, a research associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, picked up the story in a hard-hitting commentary entitled The WHO and China: Dereliction of Duty.

Published on February 27, he wrote:

“The WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been an outspoken advocate for the Chinese government’s Covid-19 response. On January 28, Tedros met with Xi in Beijing. Following the meeting, Tedros commended China for ‘setting a new standard for outbreak control’ and praised the country’s top leadership for its ‘openness to sharing information’ with the WHO and other countries. 

“Yet in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, Chinese officials were busy arresting and punishing citizens for ‘spreading rumors’ about the disease, while online censors controlled the flow of information. Despite growing evidence of China’s mishandling of the outbreak and rising domestic Chinese outrage over the government’s censorship, Tedros remains unmoved. On February 20 at the Munich Security Conference, [he] doubled down on his praise, stating that ‘China has bought the world time.’

“In contrast to his effusive praise for China, Tedros has been quick to criticize other countries for their responses to the outbreak. He called upon nations not to limit travel with China and warned against the ‘recrimination or politicization’ of the outbreak. Domestic Chinese news coverage prominently features Tedros’ praise of Xi Jinping and criticism of foreign governments.”

By late February, Zhong came out with his pronouncement, disputing that the virus “originated from China.”

Beijing was now on a roll as the phrase was reworked at media conferences. On Wednesday, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian reiterated the government’s line.

“It is highly irresponsible for [sections of the] media to dub it ‘China’s virus.’ We firmly oppose that [as] no conclusion has been reached yet on the origin of the virus, as relevant tracing work is still underway. We should focus on containing it and avoid stigmatizing language toward certain places,” Zhao told a press briefing. 

“The name Covid-19 was chosen by the WHO for the purpose of making no connections between the virus and certain places or countries. Dr Zhong Nanshan, respiratory specialist and member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said that the epidemic was first reported in China but was not necessarily originated in China.”

Stage two of the state-run propaganda campaign was underway. 

Earlier, the government-controlled Global Times ran an editorial entitled Blaming China for own virus control failure detestable. A similar commentary was published by state-owned China Daily entitled This is not the time to play the blame game. Again, it covered the same ground.

In the meantime, the economy has ground to a halt with up to 230 million migrant workers struggling to return to their jobs. Amazingly, that is just slightly less than the entire workforce of the 27-nation European Union.

“The People’s Republic of China has descended into panic mode with villages, townships, counties, prefectures and provinces all running their own disease preventive measures,” Chris Taylor, an associate partner with the Access Asia Group, a risk-management firm based in Singapore, told Asia Times.

“As many as 230 million migrant workers may still be unable to return to work as disrupted supply chains make it difficult for goods that are still being manufactured to make it to port. This is a double whammy in the sense you have a demand shock – people quarantined, unable to work or go shopping, travel or go to the cineplex – and a supply shock,” he said. 

“A huge proportion of Chinese workers are employed by SMEs [small- and medium-sized enterprises] that can’t get back to business due to new and stringent sanitary rules. Whatever analysts may say about Beijing’s control on information, the Chinese people know when they’re being lied to,” Taylor added.

To quote The X-Files, “The Truth is Out There,” probably in the human wreckage that was Wuhan.

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