US says interviews of those who worked on front lines at start of crisis crucial for credibility of WHO investigation.
Video footage from Wuhan during the earliest days of the COVID-19 outbreak shows how the Chinese government could have done more to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, and its attempts to stop journalists from reporting on it.
In 3 Days that Stopped the World, two Chinese journalists, through undercover filming and diaries, reveal the almost overnight transformation of the city of 11 million people as nonchalance about the virus was replaced by panic and overcrowded hospitals within hours. The journalists’ names have been not been disclosed for their safety.
The exclusive footage, recorded between January 19 and January 22, 2020, has never been seen before. Unable to publish it inside China, the journalists gave it to Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, which smuggled it out of the country.
Yang Jun and Chen Wei, whose names have been anonymised for their protection, travelled to Wuhan days before the city went into a full lockdown, when the official number of cases was only in the low hundreds and the Chinese government was tight-lipped with the amount information it shared.
As the journalists moved between hospitals increasingly full of patients and the Huanan seafood market, regarded as the epicentre of the outbreak, they were stopped time and again by police and security guards.
Crucial first days
Initially, as the journalists arrived in Wuhan on January 19, 2020, the severity of the virus was still unknown and human-to-human transmission was not yet confirmed.
As a result, citizens responded relatively nonchalantly to questions about the outbreak. People did not wear masks and called it worse than the flu, but not as bad as the SARS outbreaks between 2002 and 2004, which killed almost 800 people worldwide.
“When I arrive, people seem to have no fear or concern about the virus at all. Some haven’t even heard about it,” Jun wrote in his diary.
“A stall owner asks me to take off my mask. He says ‘You are obviously an over-worried outsider. Everything is fine here,'” Jun continued.
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The Huanan Market, however, had at that point already been closed off, as authorities conducted investigations into the origins of the virus. But neither officials in Wuhan nor in Beijing were forthcoming with information about the potential severity of the situation, leaving citizens in the dark.
Although the World Health Organizations (WHO) at that point had been made aware of the outbreak, both China and the WHO did not know human to human transmission was possible.
As millions of people travelled and gathered to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year, the government announced the city would go into lockdown. Then, almost overnight, the lackadaisical approach by its inhabitants turned into panic, with almost everyone wearing masks while public places in the city closed down.
But it was too late, as millions had moved throughout the country, giving the virus ample opportunity to start its spread through China, and, not long after, the world.
Information about the outbreak is hidden in secrecy and very difficult to get.
The lack of communication and transparency by the Chinese government during these first crucial days is seen widely as one of the reasons the virus was able to spread as fast as it did, leading to the most severe pandemic in 100 years, with more than two million people dead as a result of the disease.
“The lack of staff and equipment in Wuhan caused many infected patients to be denied treatment,” Jun wrote in his diary.
“It’s a joke and the hospitals were hiding the truth.”
The footage and diaries also reveal how authorities tried to stop the journalists from doing their jobs, even though they worked for Beijing-based state media and had permission from Wuhan’s municipal media affairs department.
At every turn, from the seafood market to hospitals, police tried to hinder reporting on the story.
“I can’t report with freedom. As long as the government institutions are involved, I am constantly followed and spied on,” Jun wrote in his diary.
“Information about the outbreak is hidden in secrecy and very difficult to get.”
Jun continued, writing: “During the three days of my reporting in Wuhan, I was constantly stopped by the police and hospital personnel. So, I realised how serious the virus is and how sensitive and difficult it is to report this topic. It’s totally beyond my imagination.”
Police officers repeatedly told the journalists, who continued to film surreptitiously during the questioning, they could not film, as the areas were closed off.
“There are some topics and stories that could not be reported in China. Such as the discussion of the pandemic control measures, the protocols for confirming infected patients, and also anything related to organisation or government department cover-ups. These were all impossible to touch or report,” Wei wrote in her diary.
Since the start of the outbreak, 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 imprisonment for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for her reports on the outbreak.
“Chinese media and social media talk about the crisis and despair around the world except for China,” Wei wrote. “But no one in China dares talk about the origin of the virus starting from Wuhan or early mistakes caused by the local government in Wuhan,” she continued.
“The only things allowed to be discussed about this pandemic is how the well the government has done and how thankful the Chinese people should be to the government.”
In the days and weeks following the events from 3 Days that Stopped the World, COVID-19 spread to one country after another, eventually reaching all continents and infecting more than 91 million.
Over the last couple of weeks, dozens of countries have started vaccination campaigns against the virus after governments and pharmaceutical companies scrambled to develop vaccines that would decrease the infection and mortality rate of the disease.
However, it will take considerable time and resources before most of the world is inoculated against COVID-19, meaning both the human and economic impact will be felt for several years to come.
No one in China dares talk about the origin of the virus starting from Wuhan.
Wuhan, however, has gone back to relative normality, Wei wrote in her diary.
“People here don’t really talk about the virus anymore. It’s like history that has passed long 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.
“This may not be the truth but that’s how most Chinese people feel.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Al Jazeera that the measures taken during the early stages of the pandemic significantly prevented further spread of the virus.
However, a study by the University of Southampton alleges the number of cases could have been significantly reduced if the government had taken action sooner.
The Chinese government did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions on journalistic freedom.