China defends COVID-19 response after criticism by experts

Beijing says its initial response to the outbreak was adequate after health experts allege it could have acted more rapidly.

China says it imposed early measures, including a 'hard lockdown' on Wuhan after the virus was detected, that 'reduced infections and deaths' [Andy Wong/AP Photo]

China has defended its actions as “prompt and decisive” in containing the coronavirus outbreak during its early days, rebuking criticism made by an independent panel of experts over Beijing’s handling of the outbreak.

“As the first country to sound the alarm against the pandemic, we took prompt and decisive measures even though we had incomplete information at the time,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said on Tuesday.

Hua said Beijing imposed early measures – including the announcement of a hard lockdown on Wuhan weeks after the virus was detected – that “reduced infections and deaths”.

Her comments came after the release of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response’s interim report that highlighted how China could have acted “more rapidly” against a virus that has now killed more than two million people worldwide.

The panel was formed last year following a request by member countries of the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) to identify new information on the spread of COVID-19.

“What is clear to the panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January,” said the expert group, led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

The panel reserved criticism for the UN agency as well, raising questions over why it did not convene an emergency expert committee before January 22. It also questioned why the WHO did not call the situation a global health emergency before January 30, while also failing to label the outbreak as a pandemic until early March.

Lack of transparency

Beijing has faced international criticism for an alleged lack of transparency after the virus emerged in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, and for stifling whistleblowers who tried to raise the alarm. The country has also made attempts to shift the pandemic narrative from the early chaos in Wuhan to the country’s success in stopping the virus’s spread.

China has also cast doubts on whether COVID-19 originated in Wuhan while silencing critics, including citizen journalist Zhang Zhan who was jailed for four years for reporting on conditions inside Wuhan at the height of the outbreak.

On the day of the panel’s report publication, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit released 3 Days that Stopped the World, which showed the city of Wuhan during a crucial period early on in the pandemic.

Footage – taken by two Chinese journalists – that was smuggled out of the country shows how the Chinese government failed to provide the necessary medical resources while attempting to censor journalists trying to report on the outbreak.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies