On 13 January 2020, Thailand reported that a Wuhan resident who travelled to Bangkok on 8 January had tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
This was the first COVID-19 case detected outside China. Over the next several weeks, 14 further cases were detected in travelers from China before Thailand’s first non-imported, locally transmitted COVID-19 case was reported on 31 January.
Outside China, Thailand was the first country to detect a case of COVID-19, 10 days after authorities reported a cluster of atypical pneumonia in Wuhan.
Censorship in China helped spread the pandemic
At the beginning of the year, it was clear something unprecedented was happening. Thousands of messages of public outrage appeared on Chinese social media, asking whether local governments were covering up another Sars-like virus.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) demonstrates, based on the events in the early days of the crisis, that without the control and censorship imposed by the authorities, the Chinese media would have informed the public much earlier of the seriousness of the epidemic, saving thousands of lives and possibly avoiding the current pandemic.
In an analysis published on March 13th, researchers from the University of Southampton suggest that the number of cases of coronavirus in China could have been reduced by 86% if the first measures, which were taken on January 20th, had been implemented two weeks earlier.
December 20: the Wuhan city authorities could have informed journalists
One month after the first documented case, the city of Wuhan already has 60 patients with an unknown SARS-like pneumonia, several of whom have frequented the Huanan fish market. Despite the situation, the authorities do not see fit to communicate this information to the media.
If the authorities had not hidden from the media the existence of an epidemic outbreak linked to a very popular market, the public would have stopped visiting this place long before its official closure on January 1st. Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
During the Wuhan outbreak, a number of citizen journalists made a notable impact internationally, by circumventing the “great firewall of China” to get word out of the city.
These include Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Zhang Zhan. They racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube for videos they say gave the true picture of what was happening in Wuhan.
Chinese journalist who covered Wuhan outbreak is now close to death
RSF Press Freedom laureate Zhang Zhan, who was sentenced to four years in prison one year ago for covering Covid-19, and is now facing impending death.
Zhang, 38, is close to death after a partial hunger strike she has been conducting to protest her innocence. In November, the last time her family was allowed to visit her, Zhang, whose height is 177 centimetres, weighed less than 40 kilograms and could not walk properly or even raise her head without help.
December 25: Doctor Lu Xiaohong could have expressed fears to the press
Doctor Lu Xiaohong, the head of gastroenterology at Wuhan City Hospital No. 5, begins hearing of cases of infection affecting medical staff on December 25 and suspects from the first week of January that the infection is transmissible between humans.
If journalists’ sources in China did not face severe penalties ranging from professional reprimand to heavy prison terms, Doctor Lu Xiaohong would have taken responsibility for alerting the media, forcing the authorities to take action, which only happened three weeks later.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
December 30: whistleblowers’ early warning would have been picked up by the media
The director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, Ai Fen, and a group of doctors launch an alert regarding a “SARS-like coronavirus.” Eight of them, including Doctor Li Wenliang, who later died from the illness, will be arrested by Wuhan police on January 3rd for circulating “false rumors”.
If the press and social media had been able to freely relay the information transmitted by whistleblowers on December 30th, the public would have realised the danger and put pressure on the authorities to take measures limiting expansion of the virus.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Kunchok Jinpa, a leading source of information about Tibet for journalists, died in February 2021 as a result of mistreatment in detention. Nobel Peace Prize and RSF Press Freedom Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and dissident blogger Yang Tongyan both died in 2017 from cancer that was left untreated in detention.
RSF has recently published an unprecedented investigative report entitled The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China, which reveals the previously unheard-of campaign of repression led by Beijing against journalism and the right to information worldwide.