Video footage from Wuhan during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic shows how the Chinese government could have done more to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and its attempts to prevent journalists from reporting on the outbreak.
In 3 days that stopped the world, two Chinese journalists, through undercover shoots and diaries, reveal the almost overnight transformation of the city of 11 million inhabitants, nonchalance in the face of the virus having been replaced by panic and overcrowded hospitals in a few hours. The names of the journalists have not been released for their safety.
The exclusive images, recorded between January 19 and January 22, 2020, have never been seen before. Unable to publish it in China, the journalists turned it over to Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, which smuggled it out of the country.
Yang Jun and Chen Wei, whose names have been anonymized for their protection, traveled to Wuhan days before the city was completely closed, when the official number of cases was only a few hundred and the government Chinese was discreet with the amount of information shared.
As reporters moved between hospitals increasingly filled with patients and the Huanan seafood market, considered the epicenter of the epidemic, they were repeatedly arrested by police and officials. security.
Crucial first days
Initially, as reporters arrived in Wuhan on January 19, 2020, the severity of the virus was still unknown and human-to-human transmission was yet to be confirmed.
As a result, citizens responded relatively nonchalantly to questions about the epidemic. People weren’t wearing masks and called it worse than the flu, but not as bad as the SARS epidemics between 2002 and 2004, which killed nearly 800 people around the world.
“When I arrive, people seem to have no fear or worry about the virus. Some haven’t even heard of it, ”Jun wrote in his diary.
“A stall owner asks me to take off my mask. He said, “Obviously you are too worried a stranger. Everything is fine here, ”continued Jun.
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Huanan’s market, however, had already been closed by then as authorities investigated the origins of the virus. But neither Wuhan nor Beijing officials provided information on the potential gravity of the situation, leaving citizens in the dark.
Although the world health organizations (WHO) were informed at that time of the epidemic, both China and the WHO I did not know human-to-human transmission was possible.
As millions of people moved and gathered to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year, the government announced that the city would go into lockdown. Then, almost overnight, the nonchalant approach of its residents turned into panic, with almost everyone wearing masks as public places in the city closed.
But it was too late, as millions of people had moved across the country, giving the virus plenty of opportunities to start spreading across China and, soon after, around the world.
Information on the epidemic is hidden in secrecy and very difficult to obtain.
The Chinese government’s lack of communication and transparency during those crucial early days is widely seen as one of the reasons the virus was able to spread as quickly as it did, leading to the most pandemic. serious in 100 years, with more than two million dead as a result of the disease.
“The lack of personnel and equipment in Wuhan has led to many infected patients being denied treatment,” Jun wrote in his diary.
“It’s a joke and the hospitals were hiding the truth.”
The footage and logs also reveal how authorities attempted to prevent journalists from doing their jobs, even though they worked for Beijing-based state media and had permission from the Wuhan Municipal Media Affairs Department. .
At every turn, from the seafood market to hospitals, police have tried to prevent reporting of the story.
“I cannot relate with freedom. As long as government institutions are involved, I am constantly followed and spied on, ”Jun wrote in his diary.
“Information about the epidemic is hidden in secrecy and very difficult to obtain.”
Jun went on to write, “During the three days of my reporting in Wuhan, I was constantly arrested by police and hospital staff. So I realized how bad the virus was and how sensitive and difficult it was to report this topic. It is totally beyond my imagination.
Police officers repeatedly told reporters, who continued to surreptitiously film during the interrogation, that they could not film because the areas were closed.
“There are subjects and stories that could not be brought back to China. Like the discussion of pandemic control measures, protocols for confirming infected patients, and also anything related to cover-ups from government organizations or departments. It was all impossible to touch or report, ”Wei wrote in his diary.
Since the start of the epidemic, nine Chinese journalists have been arrested or disappeared.
It’s a joke and the hospitals were hiding the truth.
In December, a prominent citizen journalist, Zhang Zhan, was sentenced to four years in prison for “picking up disputes and causing unrest” over her reporting on the epidemic.
“Chinese media and social media are talking about the crisis and desperation in the world except China,” Wei wrote. “But no one in China dares to talk about the origin of the virus from Wuhan or the first mistakes caused by the local government in Wuhan,” she continued.
“The only things that can be discussed about this pandemic is how well the government has done and how grateful the Chinese people should be to the government.
In the days and weeks following the events of the 3 days that stopped the world, COVID-19 has spread from country to country, eventually reaching all continents and infecting more than 91 million.
In the past two weeks, dozens of countries have launched vaccination campaigns against the virus after governments and pharmaceutical companies scrambled to develop vaccines that would reduce the rate of infection and death from the disease.
However, it will take a lot of time and resources before most of the world is vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning the human and economic impact will be felt for several years to come.
No one in China dares to talk about the origin of the virus from Wuhan.
Wuhan, however, has returned to relative normality, Wei wrote in his diary.
“People here don’t really talk about the virus anymore. It’s like the story that passed a long time ago, ”she wrote.
“People feel very lucky and proud to be in China because it is the only country that has controlled the virus,” she added.
“It may not be the truth, but it is how most Chinese feel.”
China’s Foreign Ministry told Al Jazeera that measures taken during the early stages of the pandemic significantly prevented the spread of the virus.
However, a study by the University of Southampton alleged the number of cases could have been significantly reduced if the government had acted sooner.
The Chinese government did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions about journalistic freedom.