Lessons from China: Free, independent press is vital to saving lives

At a time when President Donald Trump and other populist leaders are branding much of the media as “enemies of the people” in an effort to discredit news they don’t like, it’s worth remembering that we probably wouldn’t be facing the coronavirus pandemic if China had a free press.

It’s clear that China’s dictatorship suppressed news about the coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan for at least three weeks before it started spreading on social media on Dec. 30. By then, thousands of people carrying the virus had traveled to other parts of China, Italy and the United States, spreading it worldwide.

A new study by the University of Southampton shows that if China’s regime had begun taking drastic social distancing measures three weeks earlier, the number of coronavirus cases there would have been reduced by 95%. In addition, countries around the world would have had time to better prepare themselves for the crisis.

This is not to justify Trump’s misguided effort to put all the blame for the crisis on China. There is little doubt that the massive escalation of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. is because Trump fell asleep at the switch during the first two months after the initial cases were reported in China.

During that time, Trump and his Fox News propagandists suggested that the coronavirus crisis was a “hoax” allegedly concocted by Democrats to discredit him. It was only after weeks of pressure by the independent media that Trump had derided as the enemy, plus the collapse of the stock market in mid-March, that Trump started getting serious about the pandemic.

Trump aside, a chronology of the COVID-19 pandemic compiled separately by Axios and the Spanish branch of Reporters without Borders gives us a good idea of why the world is in this mess today: The absence of a free press in China suppressed the news for several weeks.

On Dec. 10, a patient named Wei Guixan was admitted to the Wuhan Central Hospital with a rare infection in both lungs.

On Dec. 12, more patients with the same problem were admitted to Wuhan hospitals, and doctors learned that some of them worked in a wildlife market.

On Dec. 27, doctors informed Wuhan health officials that a new coronavirus was causing the illness.

On Dec. 30, Ai Fen, a director at Wuhan Central Hospital, published a post in WeChat about the new virus and reportedly was scolded by authorities.

On Dec. 31, the World Health Organization learned abut the new virus in Wuhan.

On Jan. 3, eight doctors of the Wuhan Central Hospital — including Li Wenliang, who died after he was infected by the virus — reportedly were arrested for “spreading false rumors.” All news about epidemics has to be cleared by the central government.

On Jan 5, China’s Center For Disease Control and Prevention officially reported the new virus to Chinese authorities and the United Nations.

On Jan. 11, China’s state-owned media reported the first known death from the new virus in Wuhan. By then, more than a month had passed since the first patients with symptoms of the new virus had been admitted to Wuhan hospitals.

How different would things have turned out if China had a free press, and the local media in Wuhan had been allowed to report the new virus from the start? And how much worse prepared the U.S. would be if a free press had not alerted the public early on, when Trump was saying he wasn’t “concerned at all” about it?

The Wuhan outbreak of COVID-19 serves as a reminder that local media, just as much as national media, are essential not only to preserve democracy and fight corruption but also to preserve public health.

Without a free, independent and critical press, we will never be able to push our leaders to confront such pandemics sooner rather than later and save lives.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Email: aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.