Misinformation During Pandemic

Lynx Fellow John Milton


With a history of covering up viruses and silencing whistleblowers, it is not unreasonable to view Chinese data concerning Covid-19 with a fair amount of skepticism.  In spite of this, some reports coming from China are being viewed as credible by some sources. Business Insider reports that Chinese Covid-19 statistics are consistent with its neighbors, namely South Korea.  South Korea is reporting a fatality rate of 1%, which, as of March 24, matched Chinese fatality rates outside of Hubei province (the epicenter of the pandemic).  China also changed how it counted cases in February, which added further skepticism to their reports. The skepticism was due to an adjustment in the way China tested for the virus.  To provide more accurate data, the switch was made by performing more reliable CT scans of patients’ lungs over other lab tests. Finally, the Chinese government reported the Coronavirus relatively early to the WHO as the first clusters of cases began to emerge in Wuhan, dispelling some of the criticisms concerning coverup efforts by the Chinese.


Contrary to the evidence China was providing, lingering skepticism still existed as the majority of information emerged from unvetted Chinese reports.  Beginning on March 29, information containing severe inaccuracies in the number of Chinese cases surfaced in the UK. Boris Johnson’s administration recently reported that the number of cases and deaths in China could be substantially higher.  Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, recently stated that China is currently downplaying its number of Coronavirus cases “by a factor of 15 to 40 times.”  As of March 29, China has reported 81,439 cases of Covid-19 while only reporting some 3,300 deaths related to the virus.  This is in stark contrast from other sources covering the mortality rate. Funeral homes in Wuhan, for example, have stated they have disposed of an estimated 42,000 bodies of the deceased.  PM Johnson, who has tested positive for the virus, reported there will be retaliation for these numbers such as removing telecom giant Huawei from further 5G network expansion within the UK.


This would not be the first time the Chinese government has misled world leaders, but it seems the epoch of Covid-19 has escalated multilateral tensions to a new level.  Misinformation can have rippling effects even when there is no declared pandemic, but Covid-19 has provided an intimate view of China’s lack of accountability. The global pandemic has exposed the Chinese government of not only being incapable of domestic solutions, but incapable of making the necessary actions towards properly informing and preparing the international community. 

China must use this flawed, politically motivated information to maintain its domestic and international representation.  However, further inaccurate reporting has not only led to internal turmoil, but doubt within the many nations it is assisting with infrastructure development.  The BRI (Belt-Road Initiative) has been repeatedly described as a veiled attempt by China to spread its geopolitical power.  But the dependence upon Chinese goods and labor has proved to be a massive vulnerability for investing nations as nearly all BRI projects have been indefinitely suspended.  Coverups, repeated misinformation and international retaliations against Chinese businesses may cause several BRI nations to reconsider their consent to Chinese assistance.  Coupled with the rejection of Chinese products and increasing domestic turmoil, the first doubt has been cast upon Beijing leadership as the next economic superpower.