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China and the U.S. blame each other for the coronavirus. But both countries made similar mistakes.

Communication lags may prove costly.

- March 17, 2020

The State Department pushed back last week on Chinese statements suggesting that the coronavirus originated with U.S. military personnel in Wuhan — rather than a live animal market in Wuhan. Lijian Zhao, spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, posted statements to this effect on Twitter and Chinese social media, but offered no substantive evidence.

Last week, President Trump called the coronavirus a “foreign” virus. Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has repeatedly mentioned a debunked conspiracy theory that a Chinese bioweapons lab in Hubei created the virus.

As the United States and China apparently ramp up efforts to blame each other for the outbreak, the two governments responded to the coronavirus itself in one surprisingly similar way: Each government’s official response has been riddled with costly communication delays. Here’s what you need to know.

U.S. government officials sent false reassurances

In Washington, some conservative politicians have characterized the coronavirus as “foreign,” attributing it to China and Europe. Trump, in a recent Oval Office address, mentioned the “foreign” virus and announced a 30-day ban on travel from Europe. However, by the time the ban was issued, domestic cases spreading rapidly within the United States blunted the potential effectiveness of such a policy.

Trump’s March 11 address, which emphasized travel bans over testing and closures, is the latest snag in planning and preparation delays. Initially, the Trump administration minimized the effects of the virus, as the president’s March 9 tweet suggests:

Five days later, on March 13, the administration reversed course and declared the pandemic a national emergency, granting emergency authority to the Department of Health and Human Services.

This reassuring yet inaccurate messaging dominated official U.S. government communications to businesses as well. Communities and businesses began canceling large events this month — but in a piecemeal manner and with little federal guidance underpinning these decisions until the CDC issued new guidance on March 15, recommending that gatherings be no larger than 50 people. Early institution-by-institution discretionary measures meant that event organizers that opted not to cancel events continued holding large gatherings.

The National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association decided last week to cancel all live events. However, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a mixed martial arts league, received an affirmative message from Trump and continued to hold live events. League President Dana White reported on March 13 that Trump told him to “live your life and stop panicking.”

Following this same approach, bars and restaurants continued to operate as usual in many U.S. cities, including numerous St. Patrick’s Day pub crawls. Another weekend of inconsistent social distancing would go by before the president shifted his position on Monday and advised Americans to gather in groups of no more than 10 people — and the Bay Area became the first large U.S. metro area to announce a shelter-in-place order.

Censorship in China created deadly delays

Censorship was a primary factor slowing the Chinese response earlier this year. China’s own coronavirus communications debacle began in late December, when hospital discipline committees forced eight Wuhan doctors, including the late Li Wenliang, to sign confessions for “spreading rumors.” Circulating reports on symptoms similar to that of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) being transmitted between their patients, though, turned out to be a prescient warning for the disease that was just beginning to spread within the central Chinese province. According to a longtime journalist based in Wuhan writing under the pseudonym Da Shiji, the Wuhan Health Commission’s ban on hospitals releasing new information about the coronavirus was a major step taken to suppress information.

The Wuhan Health Commission also released misleading information on Dec. 31 that the coronavirus could not be transmitted from person to person. This decision hindered collective responses by businesses, schools and other institutions within Wuhan. When Li tried to spread the word to his fellow medical school alumni, hospital disciplinarians forced him to sign an anti-rumormongering confession.

This classification of articles and blogs into two categories — either discipline-prone rumors or permitted information — fits what political scientist Molly Roberts defines as fear-based censorship. Afterward, government officials proceeded as though the disease wasn’t harmful enough to deter Lunar New Year festivities and mass gatherings between Dec. 30 and the eventual shutdown of Wuhan on Jan. 23.

Guidance issued in early February by the Cyberspace Administration of China, which regulates Internet content, singled out social media and “websites, platforms, and accounts” for publishing “harmful” content and “spreading fear,” and signaled a need for the “thematic inspection” of platforms. Blocking specific keywords and phrases, including questions about when Chinese President Xi Jinping would visit Wuhan, fits what Roberts terms friction-type censorship, further slowing the capacity for unwanted information to travel through China’s already heavily monitored Internet.

Communications lags can be costly

Of course, the United States does not employ Internet censorship by keyword or a government-run firewall to block the flow of information. But China’s communication system exemplifies the consequences of compromised information channels. Breakdowns in China’s communication mechanisms, aided by censorship and the difficulties of passing on information deemed excessively “political,” hindered the movement of important information throughout the coronavirus crisis.

Looking back, many in China certainly have ample reason to be proud of the scale of testing and response to the outbreak. However, the conditions necessitating these quickly built hospitals emerged in part because of government-exacerbated informational delays. If officials had prioritized getting health information out quickly and efficiently, China’s hospitals and health-care professionals may not have been strained to the breaking point.

China appears well on its way to closing its medical policy books on the coronavirus crisis, both figuratively and narratively. But communications failures will have lasting effects in both China and the United States. As Wuhan residents know and many at-risk Americans have yet to find out, informational errors can come at fatal costs.

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Rui Zhong is a program associate at the Wilson Center, where she specializes in connections between technology and society.

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