Fact Check: “Disease ambassadors”?

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The worldwide Coronavirus pandemic is predictably generating hundreds of conspiracy theories, rumours, claims and counter-claims about every aspect of the crisis, from the virus’s origin to the actions, or inactions, of various governments in response to the threat. I’m not normally in the business of investigating stories, leaving it to professional journalists with all their expertise and resources, however one recent COVID meme has caught my attention enough for me to want to take a look behind it in more detail and ascertain its veracity.

It has been made by bloggers,

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elected representatives,

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and political personalities:

China not only unleashed the deadly coronavirus pandemic on the world, but they “protected themselves” while doing it, closing down travel in their country from the city of Wuhan but permitting it internationally, according to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“They sent over a million people around the world – 1.5 million – almost like ambassadors carrying the disease,” Giuliani told host John Catsimatidis on Sunday’s “The Cats Roundtable” on 970 AM-N.Y.

The implication of this claim is that at best the Chinese authorities have been completely disinterested in the health and well-being of anyone but their own people and at worst, feeding into conspiracy theories, that they have used the virus as a bio-weapon, allowing it to spread around the world while quickly containing it at home.

But did this actually happen – did the Chinese authorities close Wuhan from the rest of the country but still allowed people to fly out overseas?

After an extensive search of contemporaneous news reports I cannot find any confirmation.

And the only recent mention is a story from 16 April by Bret Baier and Gregg Re of Fox News, which mentions inter alia while discussing the official Chinese cover-up of the virus:

There were doctors and journalists who were “disappeared” warning of the spread of the virus and its contagious nature and human to human transmission. China moved quickly to shut down travel domestically from Wuhan to the rest of China, but did not stop international flights from Wuhan.

The claim is not specifically sourced and the whole story is based on anonymous “multiple sources”.

So what happened in Wuhan earlier this year? The authorities have imposed a total lock down on all travel on 23 January, as first reported by the local media:

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(As an aside, note the reference to “Wuhan pneumonia” – after using the term for about a month, the Chinese government realised that associating a potentially dangerous virus with China in general or a locality inside would create a very bad international PR. Not only has the use of the name – and similar ones like “Wuhan virus” – been stopped altogether in China, but the media has been subsequently scrubbed to hide the previous use.)

As the Washington Post reported on the day, “In an effort to contain the virus, authorities in Wuhan have shut down the region’s transportation network, including its three railway stations, 13 bus stations and its entire subway network. It is not clear when service, including flights out of Wuhan Tianhe International Airport will be restored.”

The Airport Technology website further commented that “It is estimated that this move will impact the plans of around 400 million people who plan to travel to other parts of the country by air, rail transport or road for the Lunar New Year holiday, starting on Friday.” Impact it did indeed, as those who have not left before 23 January were prevented from doing so, while those unfortunate enough to have already traveled into Wuhan from other parts of China  for the holiday were prevented from leaving until well into March. The airport itself was only allowed to reopen on 7 April.

The only indication of the traffic from the airport after 23 January I have come across have been suggestions I haven’t been able to independently document that several flights chartered by foreign governments to bring their nationals back home were allowed to leave just after the curfew. But this is clearly not what the critics are referring to.

So what is the source of the claims about what Rudy Giuliani refers to up to 1.5 million Chinese became “ambassadors carrying the disease”?

There are, I think, two tracks, one represented by this comment:

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It is certain that a number of people left Wuhan prior to 23 January. There is nothing inherently suspicious about it, since people routinely travel for business or personal reasons, particularly this year in the run up to the Chinese New Year, a big family holiday which fell on 25 January. It is also possible that in late January some Wuhan residents were getting an inkling that their city might come under a lock down and so left for other locations around China while they still could. But unless your argument is that the Chinese authorities should have acted sooner to lock down Wuhan (an argument that can be made) it is difficult to otherwise blame them for private individuals travelling under their own volition while still allowed to do so. And this is certainly different to closing domestic travel while letting international travel to continue. No doubt some of those who left the city before 23 January were infected by the time they arrived to their destinations around China or overseas if they embarked from other airports post-23 January (the number 5 million leaving Wuhan before the lock down is completely spurious, seeing that the city’s total population is 11 million). How many we don’t know.

Such claims seem to be conflated and confused with the overall travel from China to destinations overseas, both pre-23 January and after, such as reported by the New York Times on 4 April:

Since Chinese officials disclosed the outbreak of a mysterious pneumonialike illness to international health officials on New Year’s Eve, at least 430,000 people have arrived in the United States on direct flights from China, including nearly 40,000 in the two months after President Trump imposed restrictions on such travel, according to an analysis of data collected in both countries.

The bulk of the passengers, who were of multiple nationalities, arrived in January, at airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Newark and Detroit. Thousands of them flew directly from Wuhan, the center of the coronavirus outbreak, as American public health officials were only beginning to assess the risks to the United States.

Flights continued this past week, the data show, with passengers traveling from Beijing to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, under rules that exempt Americans and some others from the clampdown that took effect on Feb. 2. In all, 279 flights from China have arrived in the United States since then, and screening procedures have been uneven, interviews show.

But all this again goes back to the question of the initial Chinese cover-up and dissembling, which in turn means that any actions taken in response by foreign governments, such as Trump’s travel ban in early February, have come too late to contain the virus in China:

Mr. Trump has repeatedly suggested that his travel measures impeded the virus’s spread in the United States. “I do think we were very early, but I also think that we were very smart, because we stopped China,” he said at a briefing on Tuesday, adding, “That was probably the biggest decision we made so far.” Last month, he said, “We’re the ones that kept China out of here.”

But the analysis of the flight and other data by The New York Times shows the travel measures, however effective, may have come too late to have “kept China out,” particularly in light of recent statements from health officials that as many as 25 percent of people infected with the virus may never show symptoms. Many infectious-disease experts suspect that the virus had been spreading undetected for weeks after the first American case was confirmed, in Washington State, on Jan. 20, and that it had continued to be introduced. In fact, no one knows when the virus first arrived in the United States.

So there you have it. The Chinese authorities should have acted sooner to isolate Wuhan; by the time they closed the city down to the outside on 23 January the virus has long spread to other parts of China and the world. But once Wuhan was locked down, the only possible carriers traveled overseas from other parts of China – before these avenues were too eventually closed by foreign governments banning travel from China (though as the Australian experience shows, many Chinese citizens still got in by traveling through third countries).

I’m happy to be corrected by Fox’s anonymous sources if they have the information, but until such time, while there is plenty to blame the Chinese government for, the story of a mass international exodus from Wuhan after the lock down on 23 January appears to be either a misunderstanding or a myth.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

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