A response to the Guardian Newspaper publication entitled ‘If China valued free speech, there would be no coronavirus’

The Coronavirus, named COVID-19, is a new virus and previously unknown strain of influenza. At present, 85,000 cases have been confirmed in 60 countries. 2,900 deaths have been attributed to the virus. In three months, the outbreak has surpassed the combined fatality rate of the 2003 SARS and the 2012 MERS epidemics. This piece provides an analysis of the Guardian Newspapers article in which the author contends ‘If China valued free speech, there would be no coronavirus.’

The COVID-19 outbreak has reignited the human rights discussion in China. Aggravated calls for free speech arose in light of the passing of Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, who first raised the alarm over the virus, and was subsequently detained by the police for spreading false rumours” and “disrupting social order”.

 What is known about free speech in China is that it is guaranteed under the constitution, yet in practice, censorship persists. Legal clauses such as ‘subversion of state power’ are routinely employed to silence and imprison those who criticise the government. Therefore, the fundamental point made by the article is based on a reasonable assumption; reluctance by Chinese authorities to quickly circulate information may have unduly delayed the national and international response. In all probability, if Dr. Wenliang’s observations were heeded, prevention and preparedness would have kicked in sooner, transmission minimised, and more lives might have been saved.

However, to assert that there would be “no coronavirus” is stretching the assumption further than any available scientific backing. The journalist’s position is further weakened by a fallacious argument that restricted free speech not only led to the outbreak, but is the principal reason for failed containment.

Rather, the difficulty of containment is a reflection of overworked and underprepared public health systems. While free speech is of utmost importance, in the face of epidemics, adherence to the International Health Regulations is the priority. For this reason, the UN’s technical agency for health, the WHO, has endorsed China’s response mechanism, in particular, the successful quarantine of Wuhan a city five times the size of Greater London. Containment is a public health challenge faced across borders. South Korea exemplifies how even with total preparation and free access to information, health services are overwhelmed as rapid transmission persists. In the face of COVID-19 and other threats to global health security, strict adherence to international regulations is the primary solution for containment of an epidemic. A focus on the public health component will protect this discussion from becoming unhelpfully politicised.

Image: SISTEMA 12 via Wikimedia Commons

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