Behind the headlines is a painful lesson

APAC News Sydney Daily Telegraph coronvirus headline stack of papers on ground

Is an obsession with criticising everything China does about to deliver needless pain to countless people around the globe?

19 March 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein

Since its breakout in Wuhan, most likely in December, COVID-19 has become perhaps the most serious global pandemic ever. It should not be the deadliest, however, the world in 2020 is so interconnected that the disruption to lives is almost without precedent.

As of today, the situation is clear, things are going to get worse before they get better. The question is how much worse?

There is another question:

How is the spread of the virus among China’s 1.4 billion people under relative control, while it is spreading out of control in major first world countries?

China’s mistake

Early warnings, of an unidentified virus, given to government health officials in Wuhan were at best ignored, though it is more likely they were covered up. Beijing stepped in and replaced Zhang Jin, the Communist Party secretary of Hubei’s health commission, and Liu Yingzi, the commission’s director.

Though no reason was given, it was clear their failure to act in the face of an escalating health crisis was the motive. While ultimate responsibility for governance across China rests with Beijing, it was gross failure at the city and provincial level that caused the central government to step in and take control.

And it was an announcement in China’s state media that altered the world to the fact that the nation’s top anti-corruption body, the National Supervisory Commission, had been despatched to Hubei to investigate.   

By that stage it was too late for Wuhan and for many thousands of its people. But, for China’s media antagonists in the west, it was the beginning of an all-out attack on Beijing.

Kicking China while it was down

One of the most poignant comments summing up early western attitudes to the coronavirus outbreak came from US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who told the Fox News network on January 30:  

“I think it [coronavirus in Wuhan] will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America, some to [the] U.S., probably some to Mexico as well.”

Wilbur Ross, US Commerce Secretary

He added, Apple was “talking about figuring out how to replace some of the Chinese production.”

It is important to note that Ross prefaced his comments by saying, “First of all every American’s heart has to go out to the victims of the coronavirus.”

The ‘return of jobs’ comment did not much reveal bad intentions on Ross’s part, however, that was the line picked up by the media.

Many western media outlets, particularly the major mastheads in the United States, saw this as chance to take a swipe at China and they jumped at the opportunity.

China and the US were in the midst of a drawn-out trade war, which has taken a backseat to current developments. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo upped his hawkish rhetoric deliberately labeling this the “Wuhan Virus” after the World Health Organisation had designated it COVID-19.

Western media takes aim at Beijing

Within hours of the magnitude of the problem in Wuhan becoming apparent to the global community a salvo of headlines, news stories and opinion pieces were fired off in Beijing’s direction.

China’s government not only had a responsibility to its own people but to the global community to coordinate the fight against the virus, be forthcoming as to what was going on and communicate the likely global effects.

Though the World Health Organization was on the ground in China, their levels of communication have been criticized. At a cross border agency-to-agency level it does appear that China’s channels were open.

In late-January the Chief Medical Officer of, Australia’s largest state, New South Wales addressed a news conference in Sydney telling the media that her department was in daily communication with Chinese health officials.

Such comments don’t make headlines in fact, on the very same day, the headline in Australia’s second biggest daily tabloid newspaper read Chinese Virus PANDA-MONIUM.

As a human tragedy unfolded, tabloid media revelled in attacks on China and its people.

Leading the tabloid charge, images of a bat soup were splashed across the Daily Mail in late January, along with a caption “revolting footage” accompanied by an entirely false story that this was in China.

In one online report an aerial image of construction of the temporary hospital that was built in ten days to treat people the people of Wuhan was labelled a “mass grave” being built be the Chinese government.

Then there was the infamous China is The Real Sick Man of Asia headline that led to the expulsion of three Wall Street Journal correspondents from Beijing. The headline (in my opinion racist) aside, the story was a broadside against the Chinese government, using its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak as proof of all that is wrong with the country.

The west’s mistake

It’s now been proved that the Wall Street Journal could not have been more wrong in its assessment that China – primarily based on its system of government – was ill equipped to handle this virus.

In a video report, posted on February 3, the Wall Street Journal said, “This looks like a moment for the U.S. to enlist its allies to lean in on China and not let up.”

Hindsight has shown this was not the moment to “lean in on” but to “learn from” China.

A mass mobilisation of personnel from all over China to fight the virus was painted as the action of a heavy handed and secretive communist regime. Camera phone videos of people being forcibly dragged from their homes was run across numerous media outlets.

As heart wrenching as those scenes were to watch at the time, it is now apparent that this was in fact a massive humanitarian operation, which saved countless lives.  

Some western politicians who, despite their constant clashes with the media, are among the biggest media junkies in the world seemingly lapped it all up.  

One wonders the role the media played in the lack of action on the part of policymakers and officials beyond China’s borders?

China’s optics were misread

China is in a unique position among large nations because the structure of its central government can facilitate mass mobilisation, unfettered by bureaucracy or state and provincial government regulations.

Amidst this mobilisation of doctors, nurses, engineers, construction workers, emergency responders, security personnel and a host of others, China’s state-owned media carried reports on how this combined effort was reaping rewards.

By western journalistic standards these were well-managed media opportunities that cast a very favourable light on China’s efforts to fight the virus. Such reports were almost universally dismissed by western media as government propaganda.

It may well have been Chinese self-congratulation; but what totally escaped so many of us in the west was the simple fact that China was actually getting it right.

By spending the best part of two months focussing on what is wrong in China, we in the west lost a huge chunk of that time simply not paying attention to the basic steps needed to control this virus.

The mainstream media still doesn’t get it

As late as ten days ago, while COVID-19 infection rates in Italy were spiralling at an exponential rate, Australia’s 60 Minutes television program aired a major feature on the COVID-19 outbreak. The program was promoted extensively across the network and other media with the headline, “Journalist goes undercover at “wet markets”, where the Coronavirus started.”

That journalist, Liam Bartlett, did conduct a hidden camera investigation. Every suggestion in the promotion of the story was that Bartlett was headed for a wet market in China. In the 30-minute program itself, it took more than 13 minutes to finally reveal that this “undercover report” was from a market in Bangkok and nowhere near China.

The story also trumpeted the dire warning that 60 percent of the world’s population could be infected with COVID19.

If 60 percent global infection is their scenario, surely the most obvious question is how did China manage to limit COVID-19 infection to less than one percent of its population?   

That question was not asked.

An exponential outbreak

In many countries, Australia included, COVID-19 infection rates are doubling every four days or less. That is a truly alarming statistic. And the countries where infections are growing exponentially have largely not undertaken the measures seen in places like Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, where death rates are lower and infections being controlled.

We simply didn’t pay enough attention to what China was doing, while other Asian nations did.

On March 7, the New York Times once again took China to task over its methods for controlling COVID-19.

Its story led with, “Beijing says its heavy-handed measures are working. Can other countries battling the outbreak learn from its efforts — or is the cure worse than the disease?”

That was just twelve days ago, since then the number of deaths outside of China has risen from 400 to more than 5,400. Would those souls think China’s cure is worse than the disease?

Tough love, fighting the virus in Nanjing

A Japanese filmmaker looks at what Nanjing, a city of 8.5 million people a few hundred kilometres from Hubei, did to avoid a single COVID-19 death.