China secretly prepared for a pandemic as tens of thousands of people dined together in Wuhan, AP reports

·2 min read

There was compelling evidence by late December that the new coronavirus in Wuhan, China, was spreading from person to person, but Chinese officials didn't take the threat of a significant outbreak seriously until the coronavirus was detected in Thailand on Jan. 13, The Associated Press reports, citing internal documents and interviews with Chinese officials. Top officials in Beijing started preparing for a pandemic on Jan. 14, but secretly, keeping the public in the dark as the virus spread for six days. President Xi Jinping issued a televised warning on Jan. 20, at which point more than 3,000 people had been infected.

Chinese officials spent the six days distributing test kits to trace the virus nationwide, ordering wider screening of patients, preparing hospitals for an infectious virus, and easing the stringent rules for confirming coronavirus infections, AP reports. During that week, Wuhan "hosted a mass banquet for tens of thousands of people" and "millions began traveling through for Lunar New Year celebrations."

"If they took action six days earlier, there would have been much fewer patients and medical facilities would have been sufficient," Zuo-Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told AP. "We might have avoided the collapse of Wuhan's medical system," and lives would have been saved. Researchers later estimated that if the public had been warned a week earlier and told to wear masks, forego travel, and social-distance, cases could have been cut by up to two-thirds.

China denies that it hid the outbreak early on, and some outside experts argue that Beijing's actions were defensible given its private actions and the risk of provoking unnecessary hysteria. "But the early story of the pandemic in China shows missed opportunities at every step," AP reports. "Under Xi, China's most authoritarian leader in decades, increasing political repression has made officials more hesitant to report cases without a clear green light from the top." Read more at The Associated Press.

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