Ask Mei

A breath of fresh air

New York Times virus specialist has a different take on China’s response to the pandemic

A breath of fresh air

The head of the WHO: Tedros Adhanom

Having started my career as a video journalist at CNN in Atlanta in the 1990s, I have always held a favourable view of the mainstream Western press, seeing its missions of overseeing the powerful and promoting justice and freedom of speech as important and admirable. Although living in Hong Kong over the past two decades, I still get much of my news from Western media such as CNN, the New York Times, the Financial Times, The Economist and National Public Radio podcasts. But while I appreciate their coverage of news from the US, the UK and other parts of the world, I have noticed that a new sense of ideological bias and even animosity against China has taken hold among much of the international media in recent years.

The reasons for such negativity are multi-faceted. Among them, China’s new power as an economy, as well as technologically and militarily, has rattled many developed nations, especially the US; Beijing’s growing assertiveness in global and geopolitical spheres, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and its expansion into the South China Sea, has also created suspicion and alarm. Western political leaders and media also seem to be disillusioned by a failure to move China closer to their type of democratic system. And based on the experiences of a few of my foreign journalist friends, I believe Beijing’s harassment of the media personnel working within its borders has also turned many of these China-watchers into China-haters.

The global backlash reached a new high in the past two weeks, judging by the Western media reports citing the views of many politicians pointing the finger at China for causing the devastating spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. While many medical professionals and scientists give China some credit for effectively containing the pandemic (which resulted in relatively low infection and fatality rates), I couldn’t find much similar sentiment into the international media until I came cross NPR’s Fresh Air podcast on 30 April. It featured Donald G McNeil Jr, a science and health reporter for the New York Times, who specialises in coverage of plagues and pestilence.

McNeil’s argument that the US should learn from China’s approach to containing Covid-19 was so unlike what I’d read in the mainstream press that I almost couldn’t believe my ears. Here are some of his key messages:

• Compared with China’s containment experience – particularly in Hubei province – stay-at-home practices in the US have been like a “giant garden party”. That’s why there are still tens of thousands of new infections every day, McNeil says.

• China was a model of how to stop a fast-moving pandemic, using widespread testing and a strict quarantine. “We’re reluctant to follow China, but they did it. They did it brutally, but brilliantly” he believes. “There are a lot of brutal things that the government in Beijing does. … In this case, it was not brutal to its own citizens. It saved probably 10 million lives. That’s how many I estimated would have died in China if this had just gone unchecked.”

• On Trump’s criticism of the World Health Organisation for being soft on China, McNeil says: “I have been following the WHO for 20 years. Believe it or not, I consider this the WHO’s finest hour… They have been warning since January 22 that this is a dangerous virus (and) the world has got to react… They declared it a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, ringing the alarm bell as loud as they know how to ring it since then… I have been listening to their press conferences every single day. I got the story into the New York Times on February 2, saying this is going to be a pandemic but nobody in Washington paid attention… and Trump said it was all going away in April.”

• Regarding the initial cover-up of the virus, McNeil says it was perpetrated “not by Beijing but by the mayor of Wuhan”. “This was like Chicago lying to Washington,” he adds. Beijing sent an investigative team to Wuhan in early January to find out what was going on. On January 20, Dr Zhong Nanshan, a Tony Fauci figure in China, confirmed publicly that the virus was being transmitted human-to-human and that people should stay away from the epicentre. “Three days later Beijing came down on Wuhan like a tonne of bricks. They had their heel on the neck of Wuhan’s mayor and he had to apologise on national TV. They shut down the city and immediately told the WHO what was going on,” McNeil adds.

• On allegations that China refused to let a WHO medical team in to investigate, he says they did allow a team after a delay. He also noted that the group had representatives from the American CDC and American NIH in it. The refusal to allow a team directly from the CDC team was because “the CDC took an arrogant attitude of we will take over and give you some pointers,” he says.

• McNeil also explains: “The CDC unfortunately is famous for taking samples away from foreign scientists, analysing them and publishing in their own journals. If you are a Chinese scientist, if you can get an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine or the Lancet as a lead author, you will get a prize of $100,000 from the Chinese government… So nobody wants to give up their samples.” But in his view the samples issue has been blown out of proportion. “Scientists are not complaining there is no data from China. Scientists say we got what we need plus we got our own samples here.”

McNeil has worked with the New York Times for 44 years and during the interview his technical knowledge and experience comes across in the plainest possible terms. I only hope more people might take the time to listen to his comments on the Fresh Air podcast. Beyond what he says about China’s handling of the crisis, he also discusses detailed scenarios on potential vaccines and how long the US is likely to be wrestling with the outbreak.





A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]

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