Video footage from Wuhan during the earliest days of the COVID-19 outbreak shows how the Chinese government could have done more to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, and its attempts to stop journalists from reporting on it.
In 3 Days that Stopped the World, two Chinese journalists, through undercover filming and diaries, reveal the almost overnight transformation of the city of 11 million people as nonchalance about the virus was replaced by panic and overcrowded hospitals within hours. The journalists’ names have been not been disclosed for their safety.
The exclusive footage, recorded between January 19 and January 22, 2020, has never been seen before. Unable to publish it inside China, the journalists gave it to Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, which smuggled it out of the country.
Yang Jun and Chen Wei, whose names have been anonymised for their protection, travelled to Wuhan days before the city went into a full lockdown, when the official number of cases was only in the low hundreds and the Chinese government was tight-lipped with the amount information it shared.
As the journalists moved between hospitals increasingly full of patients and the Huanan seafood market, regarded as the epicentre of the outbreak, they were stopped time and again by police and security guards.
Crucial first days
Initially, as the journalists arrived in Wuhan on January 19, 2020, the severity of the virus was still unknown and human-to-human transmission was not yet confirmed.
The Huanan Market, however, had at that point already been closed off, as authorities conducted investigations into the origins of the virus. But neither officials in Wuhan nor in Beijing were forthcoming with information about the potential severity of the situation, leaving citizens in the dark.
Although the World Health Organizations (WHO) at that point had been made aware of the outbreak, both China and the WHO did not know human to human transmission was possible.
As millions of people travelled and gathered to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year, the government announced the city would go into lockdown. Then, almost overnight, the lackadaisical approach by its inhabitants turned into panic, with almost everyone wearing masks while public places in the city closed down.
But it was too late, as millions had moved throughout the country, giving the virus ample opportunity to start its spread through China, and, not long after, the world.
The lack of communication and transparency by the Chinese government during these first crucial days is seen widely as one of the reasons the virus was able to spread as fast as it did, leading to the most severe pandemic in 100 years, with more than two million people dead as a result of the disease.
“The lack of staff and equipment in Wuhan caused many infected patients to be denied treatment,” Jun wrote in his diary.
“It’s a joke and the hospitals were hiding the truth.”