A great deal of confusing and contradictory information has been written about the events surrounding the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China. Philippe Lemoine has now provided a long and carefully documented account of the early days of the epidemic. This will be followed up with three more installments, discussing conspiracy theories regarding acknowledgement of human-to-human transmission, the origin of Covid-19 (lab or natural), and pandemic data from China.
I approached this piece with a bit of skepticism, as in February I had been highly critical of China’s initial response and I had heard that Lemoine’s account was less critical of China. In fact, his account seems pretty even-handed and I found it persuasive. Here’s one excerpt, summarizing the events of late December 2019:
The truth is that, all things considered, and despite a few mistakes at the end of December, the identification of SARS-CoV-2 as the cause of the outbreak was remarkably fast. It could probably have been identified even faster had the cluster of pneumonia been noticed sooner. According to the New York Times, which relied on Chinese media reports and interviews with former officials, the system created after the SARS epidemic in 2002–04 to detect outbreaks of infectious diseases didn’t work properly. Every suspicious case was supposed to be immediately reported to the national health authorities in Beijing, who employ people trained to detect contagious outbreaks and take steps to suppress them before they spread. This system was created to prevent precisely the kind of political interference that had kept Beijing in the dark and delayed the response at the beginning of the first SARS outbreak in 2002. According to the Times, it didn’t work because the local health authorities insisted on controlling what was reported to Beijing instead of allowing doctors to report the information, as intended. That is why the national health authorities only realized there was a cluster of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan on December 30th, when rumours of SARS began to appear on social media. . . .
Needless to say, bureaucratic ineptitude is hardly unique to authoritarian countries in general, or to China in particular. It is a consequence of human frailty, and the conduct of many countries during this pandemic—including, and perhaps especially, some of the West’s democracies—offers countless examples of bureaucratic incompetence. We’ll probably never know exactly what went wrong in those very early days of the pandemic and who bears personal responsibility for China’s mistakes, because police states do not conduct public inquiries that risk undermining their own legitimacy and authority. We can speculate that, had everything worked exactly as it was supposed to, SARS-CoV-2 might have been identified as the cause of the pneumonia outbreak a few days, or perhaps a week, sooner. But we don’t live in a world without human error, we live in this one.
There are several lessons to be drawn from Lemoine’s research (my interpretation, not necessarily his):
1. My February post suggesting that China was the worst possible place for a Covid-19 epidemic to begin was clearly wrong. They made mistakes, but no worse than one would expect in most countries.
2. The US government response to the epidemic was at least as dishonest as the Chinese government response, and far more incompetent.
3. US government claims of a Chinese Covid-19 conspiracy are false.
This issue is important, as the US government is currently using the alleged Chinese cover-up as one of the excuses for starting a cold war with China. Recall that the Spanish-American War, the Vietnam War and the Iraq War we all based, in part, on false conspiracy theories peddled by the US government.
I eagerly await the next three installments in his series. I expect Lemoine’s full account to eventually become the definitive history of the initial outbreak. Read the whole thing.