China, Chan and Cover-ups

Figuring out what is going on in an authoritarian country renowned for its tight control over the press is always difficult, but it is especially challenging in China during public health emergencies.

During the SARS outbreak in 2003, the government of China engaged in a massive conspiracy to hide the fact that the disease originated in mainland China and the extent of the infections and deaths within China. At one point, western reporters were invited to visit a hospital to prove that there were no SARS patients there. Unbeknownst to the reporters, the many SARS patients who had been there were loaded into ambulances and driven around the city until the westerners had left the hospital. It was during this crisis that a little-known functionary in Hong Kong would distinguish herself. Margaret Chan, then a bureaucrat in the public health establishment in Hong Kong, ignored clear warnings about a new illness that was killing people on the mainland. Many thought that she did this on the instructions of the Chinese government. She was reprimanded by the Hong Kong government for her poor performance during this crisis.

2003 was an eventful year. In addition to the SARS outbreak, H5N1 (bird flu) re-emerged in China after 6 years of apparent dormancy. Again, the Chinese government covered up deaths due to a disease that originated in China. And, again, Margaret Chan downplayed the risks, infamously saying: “I eat chicken every day”.

Although the people of Hong Kong were very angry at Margaret Chan’s unwillingness to put their health above the “face” of the mainland government, the Communist Party of China did not forget the favors she did them. She left Hong Kong in disgrace but immediately obtained a position at the World Health Organisation (WHO). In 2005, she became the pandemic flu “czar” at the WHO.

In 2005, yet another mysterious disease was killing people in China. This time, it appeared to originate in pigs.

From The Standard, July 29, 2005:

A case involving a Hong Kong man infected recently with the mysterious swine virus was reported Thursday, deepening concern over the possible local impact of the disease that has killed 31 people in Sichuan and bringing the number of local infections to 10 since May 2004.

[snip]

Medical sector legislator Kwok Ka-ki questioned whether the cause of the disease might be something other than the streptococcus bacteria.

Again, the Chinese government appeared to cover up the cause of this strange disease that was killing pigs and people.

From The Straits Times, August 2, 2005

Beijing, which came under fire for covering up the Sars outbreak two years ago, insisted the pig-borne disease was under control.

The online edition of the official Xinhua news agency quoted a health official in Ziyang, where the outbreak was first reported in June, as saying the rates of new infections and deaths have fallen.

Media coverage of the outbreak has been restricted: Chinese reporters say they may no longer visit affected areas and newspapers have been told to publish Xinhua reports.

Still, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in a statement that China has done a good job of supplying information on the epidemic and taken extensive steps to block further infections.

Note that, despite severe media restrictions and obvious censorship, the WHO compliments the Chinese government on their handling of the situation. Margaret Chan strikes again?

After the sudden and unexpected death of Dr. LEE Jong-wook in 2006, Margaret Chan lobbied hard to replace him as Director-General of the WHO. With the strong backing of the Communist Party of China, she was selected as Director-General of the WHO in the same year.

In early 2009, the new H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic began. Again, Margaret Chan was accused of delaying action.

From ThaiIndian News, May 1, 2009

The World Health Organisation (WHO) Friday rejected criticism that it was too slow in reacting to the outbreak of the swine flu A(H1N1) virus.

Mexican officials as well as some media reports have said there was too long a gap between information reaching the WHO that a new influenza was apparently emerging and the organisation’s reaction.

All we need to complete the usual pattern is a cover up by the government of China.

Oh yeah, here it is:

From Reuters [hat-tip, Helblindi]

Zhong Nanshan, a doctor based in the far southern province of Guangdong, said he doubted the current official death toll from the influenza strain, also called “swine flu”, that has medical experts worldwide worried.

“I just don’t believe that nationwide there have been in all 53 H1N1 deaths,” Zhong told the Southern Metropolis Daily, a popular Guangdong newspaper.

Zhong said that “some areas have not been testing deaths from severe (pneumonia) and treating them as cases of ordinary pneumonia without a question,” the paper reported.

[snip]

“It’s irresponsible to treat these cases as ordinary pneumonia deaths,” Zhong said of untested deaths, according to the paper.

So, how many deaths are there really and when did they start? With H5N1, the Chinese government successfully covered up deaths on the mainland for two years.

How long has the government of China been covering up H1N1 deaths?

The Director-General of the WHO, Margaret Chan, may not be the best person to ask.

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