China’s Secrets and Lies turned COVID-19 Into a Global Threat

Ambassador Johnson at work under the watchful eye of the man who coined the phrase, the #SpecialRelationship

It is bad enough when conspiracy-theory cranks spread dangerous misinformation around the world. It is far worse, and more dangerous, when malign misinformation is spread by a government’s officials. And that is exactly what the People’s Republic of China has been doing, spreading false accusations about the origin and spread of the coronavirus.

This op-ed by Ambassador Johnson appeared in the March 26, 2020 edition of The Times.

Ambassador Robert Wood Johnson
March 26, 2020

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.” That statement, often attributed to Mark Twain, is especially true in the 21st century. In today’s age of social media it has unfortunately become normal to see false information reach a broad audience instantaneously.

It is bad enough when conspiracy-theory cranks spread dangerous misinformation around the world. It is far worse, and more dangerous, when malign misinformation is spread by a government’s officials. And that is exactly what the People’s Republic of China has been doing, spreading false accusations about the origin and spread of the coronavirus.

The facts about Covid-19 are undisputed. The outbreak originated in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. The government of China knew there was a new Sars-like virus in December. For a country that aspires to a global leadership role, China’s obligations to the international community were obvious — transparently share what it knew about the virus with world health officials and co-ordinate quickly with world governments to stop this highly contagious disease before it became a pandemic.

The Chinese government did not do this. First it tried to suppress the news. Then, it worked to protect its own population while selectively sharing critical information, such as genetic sequence data, and continuing to stonewall international health authorities that were offering assistance, requesting access and seeking more information. Had China done the right things at the right time, more of its own population, and the rest of the world, might have been spared the most serious impact of this disease. Instead, China accused other countries of spreading the virus and, when called out for this blatant and dangerous propaganda, its officials complained indignantly about the “politicisation” of the virus’s origin.

We all know how we got here. What we need to focus on now is how we get through this. The world faces a common threat to public health and we need countries to work together to save lives and protect the global economy. People are not interested in the Chinese government’s efforts to shift blame. They want to make sure they have enough masks and gloves for their healthcare workers and enough beds and ventilators for their sick.

We must all redouble our efforts to co-operate and share information about this disease rapidly and transparently. The US government has pledged $100 million so far to help countries around the world combat the spread of Covid-19, including a $37 million commitment by the US Agency for International Development to provide assistance to 25 countries at high risk for the spread of the virus. Our Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have been at the forefront of the global effort to understand and tackle the virus and to issue sound public health advice. Our scientists and biotech companies are collaborating around the world to seek both a new vaccine for the virus and look at existing anti-viral and other medicines to help stop the disease in its tracks and save lives.

President Trump has directed our scientists and government to work transparently and co-operatively with their global counterparts. Here in London, my team is doing just that, both at the highest levels of government and by acting as good neighbours. Our diplomats and yours are working around the clock to make sure senior American and UK officials are getting resources and information where it is needed most. In London, Belfast, Edinburgh and Hamilton, I have instructed my team to use technology, creativity and common sense to carry out our critical work while taking measures to fight contagion and help flatten the curve of infection rate.

We are not just working bilaterally. Together with the UK we are working through multilateral forums like the UN, G7 and Nato as we explore every resource to mitigate the damage and take care of the most vulnerable.

We are also taking time to recognise those everyday heroes who are helping us all. These are the doctors and nurses, but also the grocery store clerks, pharmacists, food delivery drivers and so many more who help keep the country ticking along. It includes everyone who is helping to flatten the curve by self-isolating, washing their hands and following the government’s good advice.

But when the crisis finally abates we should take stock of the outcome and evaluate the costs of this breakdown in international collaboration, the effects of suppressing important information, the impact of stonewalling information-sharing during the early stages of the pandemic, and the fallout from disinformation campaigns throughout the course of this pandemic.