One of the world’s great tourist attractions, France's Eiffel Tower, is deserted in Paris with just a discarded face mask in the foreground. Photo: AFP / Ludovic Marin

It is a warning from history. 

How did a local, viral outbreak at a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan turn into a global pandemic in less than four months, threatening the lives of millions of people and bringing nations to a standstill?

Even now, that question lingers as more than 150 countries from Asia to Europe and from North America to South America battle an invisible enemy.

“Beijing’s late, inadequate and skewed information disclosures accelerated the virus’ global spread. China’s manipulation of information continues to hamper response efforts. Now, as the world wrestles with the pandemic, and its human, economic and social costs, Beijing is maneuvering to ‘seize the opportunity’ that the crisis presents,” a report by Horizon Advisory, a consultancy in Washington and New York which tracks Chinese government and economic activity, revealed.

“‘At present, the Covid-19 situation has been contained in China; most regions have resumed work and production … It is possible to turn the crisis into an opportunity – to increase the trust and the dependence of all countries around the world of [the] ‘Made in China’ [concept],’” Han Jian, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote earlier this month, according to the Horizon study, compiled by co-founders Emily de La Bruyere and Nate Picarsic.

For millions of people elsewhere, “trust” has become a rare commodity after the frightening spread of the pandemic. 

On December 10, the first official victim of the new coronavirus strain was reported in Wuhan, the sprawling cultural capital of Hubei province in Central China. It did not warrant a single paragraph in the country’s tightly-controlled state-run media, despite reports of infections in November.

As cases started to surge, Dr Li Wenliang and Ai Fen, a director at Wuhan Central Hospital, sounded the alarm bells. But instead of being praised for their vigilance, they were reprimanded by health officials for warning of a possible epidemic. 

Li was later accused of “making false comments on the internet” and threatened with legal action by the security services. 

Then, on December 31, the Wuhan Health Commission notified hospitals of a “pneumonia of unclear cause” after 27 new cases were reported. Finally, the World Health Organisation was informed about the mysterious outbreak.

“We spent 730 million yuan [US$103 million] to build a reporting and early warning system for the CDC [or China’s Center for Disease Control] after SARS. It did well for the avian flu and plague, although they were of much smaller scale than the coronavirus,” Yang Gonghuan, the former deputy director of China’s Center for Disease Control, said.

“For the whole of December when the disease happened, I have learned that the system was not put into use. I was very surprised [that happened] at the time. This [failure] actually exemplifies a lot of the problems that are happening in China today,” she told the South China Morning Post without going into further details.

The “early warning system” was rolled out after the botched attempts to contain the SARS coronavirus, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, between 2002 and 2003. 

Moves to beef up international health regulations and the role of the WHO were put in place after China’s Ministry of Health failed to share information with the rest of the world about “a dangerous new type of pneumonia in Guangdong province.”

Before the outbreak was finally eradicated, 8,098 people were infected in 29 countries with a death toll of 774, according to the WHO.

“The revised IHR [international health regulations] did not stop the Chinese government from actively suppressing information that might have slowed or stopped the coronavirus [Covid-19] outbreak. Local police punished and censored doctors and other whistleblowers who sought to raise [an] early alarm over the novel coronavirus,” Thomas J Bollyky and Yanzhong Huang, academics at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said.

“Between January 12 and 20, government officials chose not to report information about the infection of 15 health workers and clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. The government also failed to share the basic public health information that might have helped thousands of Chinese people avoid infection themselves,” they wrote in a commentary for Foreign Policy, a Council on Foreign Relations publication.

Yet these catastrophic decisions have been airbrushed from the narrative by President Xi Jinping’s government while the WHO has also shown a lack of robust criticism for Beijing’s disastrous “early warning system.”

Still, this has been a public relations disaster for Xi and the ruling Communist Party. Accusations of incompetence have been leveled against the administration for its initial response to the crisis, as well as claims of a “cover-up” by officials in Wuhan, the epicenter of the first wave of the epidemic.

Retribution from the online community has been swift especially after the death of whistleblower Li. On February 7, the unassuming doctor, whose voice was finally heard about the catalog of chicanery, lost his personal battle against the disease he was fighting, and became just another statistic. 

Demands for freedom of speech echoed throughout Chinese chatrooms as the Party and Xi received the brunt of the backlash before Beijing’s legions of censors moved in to try to eradicate dissent.

Closer to home, Zhao Shilin, who used to sit on China’s top decision-making body, the Central Committee, released a public letter to Xi on February 23, ripping into the “tight social controls” and “information censorship” that led to the “devastating mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.” 

“Due to human error, we have missed the most important ‘golden window’ of time to combat the epidemic – the time around [Chinese] New Year [when millions of Chinese travel across the country and abroad], especially the beginning and middle of January. This has resulted in the epidemic spreading with great ferocity. The costs of this mistake are enormous. The lessons we must learn are unspeakably painful. The losses, immeasurable,” Zhao said.

Nearly a month since that letter was made public, “great ferocity” graphically describes the pandemic overwhelming Europe, North America and other parts of the world, including Asia.

So far, more than 337,000 people have been infected globally with the death toll spiraling past 14,000. In China, 81,000 people have been infected with a mortality rate of nearly 3,300. 

Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom have reported the worst outbreaks in Europe while there have been more than 33,000 official cases in the United States. A “second wave’ has also swept across Southeast Asia. 

“We are facing a global health crisis unlike any in the 75-year history of the United Nations – one that is spreading human suffering, infecting the global economy and upending people’s lives. If we let the virus spread like wildfire, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world, it would kill millions of people,” Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, told a videoconference.  

“A global recession – perhaps of record dimensions – is a near certainty. The International Labour Organization has just reported that workers around the world could lose as much as US$3.4 trillion in income by the end of this year,” he said last week.

Another warning from history.