The deadly virus has now infected 800,000 people worldwide, racking up more than 38,000 deaths as the US, Italy and Spain struggle to deal with the huge influx in numbers. Coronaviruses are known to jump from animals to humans and COVID-19 is believed to have originated in Wuhan at a seafood market where wild animals including birds, bats and snakes were traded illegally. The first case of the virus is thought to have been recorded in Wuhan as early as December 1, but China did not report the outbreak to the World Health Organisation (WHO) until December 31.
Speaking on Four Corner’s “Secrets behind Coronavirus” documentary, Centre for Strategic International Studies senior fellow Richard McGregor says this time lost was vital to how the pandemic unfolded.
He said last month: “The key point in this saga is they lost about two weeks, maybe three, just when the virus was at its nascent point, just at a time where they could have traced it, a time when perhaps they could have checked it.
“That was lost because it got caught up in the politics of the information flow and surveillance in China.”
China has already come under fire after it was found the most-popular messaging app, WeChat, had been censoring keywords around the virus since January 1.
The key point in this saga is they lost about two weeks, maybe three
The communist country also arrested anyone spreading “rumours” online, including Dr Li Wenliang, who was hailed a hero for raising the alarm about the coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak.
But, presenter Sean Nicholls proposed a secondary reason that allowed the huge spike in numbers in Chinese cases in January.
He said: “Four weeks after the first infections China notifies the World Health Organisation of the outbreak, things are about to get worse.
“In early January, millions of Chinese are preparing to travel to travel to and from Wuhan to celebrate Chinese New Year with their families.”
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This year, the Chinese New Year fell on Saturday, January 25.
Two days earlier, the central government of China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei in an effort to quarantine the centre of an outbreak.
But, the BBC’s China correspondent Stephen McDonell told viewers that millions of Chinese residents from across the country had already crossed paths by that point.
He said: “If you were to pick the most dangerous time, the worst time for a virus to break-out, the worst time for it to spread quickly across China and around the world, it would be the Lunar New Year.
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“You have hundreds of millions of people crisscrossing China, travelling overseas, and because of that mass-migration, the largest mass-migration annually in the world, it was a terrible time for this virus outbreak to happen.”
China’s lockdown appears to have been effective once it came into force, with a significant drop in the number of reported cases.
The city of Wuhan began lifting a two-month lockdown on Saturday by restarting some metro services and reopening borders, allowing some semblance of normality to return and families to reunite.
Life in the city is far from normal though, the vast majority of shops are shut while bright yellow roadblocks remain. Wuhan will not let people leave the city until April 8.
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