In this time of global crisis, the US and Malta are proud to be open societies. We uphold and celebrate the rights and freedoms of citizens, including the right to truthful, timely information and freedom of speech.  The reality of today’s world is one of competition between closed societies, which control and suppress, and open societies working towards better means of upholding the rule of law and respecting individual rights.  

The most recent example of this contrast is the approach open societies have taken to COVID-19, compared to the approach by closed societies, such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  If we are to work together around the world to defeat this pandemic, we must value honesty and transparency over secrecy and control.   

In today’s age of social media, it has unfortunately become normal to see false information reach a broad audience instantaneously through the internet. When a vicious and dangerous conspiracy theory is uttered by an official government mouthpiece, however, we should take particular notice.   

That is exactly what happened on March 13 and again over the weekend of March 21-22, when the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC levelled false accusations against the US related to the COVID-19 virus. 

The fact that the outbreak originated in Wuhan, Hubei province – and that the Chinese government was the first to know about it – is beyond doubt. The virus likely had been circulating in Wuhan since mid-November, and credible media reports indicate the Chinese government knew of a local outbreak last November 17.  Chinese doctors on the front lines frantically tried to treat the first patients even as they notified provincial and PRC government authorities of the emergence of this new ‘SARS-like’ virus.   

The Chinese government had a responsibility to be fully transparent about what its experts knew.  

Yet Beijing delayed notifying the World Health Organisation (WHO) until December 31, 2019, thereby delaying a global response.  

The Chinese authorities actively censored and punished the brave Chinese people who tried to tell the truth.  PRC authorities did their best to suppress any information about the spread of COVID-19, even as Chinese doctors heroically attempted to save the lives of dozens, hundreds, and then thousands of patients who were falling ill.   

As precious weeks passed and the seriousness of the outbreak became apparent, PRC officials made extensive preparations to protect their own population.

The world’s best hope to effectively manage the COVID-19 virus lies in international cooperation, international transparency, and complete honesty

At the same time, they chose to selectively share information, such as genetic sequence data, and continued to stonewall international health authorities who offered assistance and sought more information. Had these same authorities done the right thing and sounded the alarm about this new disease, the PRC – and indeed the rest of the world – might have been spared some of the impact on our populations. 

The Chinese people know their government is to blame for this pandemic. The PRC’s heavily-censored social media platform, Weibo, was flooded with trending topics such as “Wuhan government owes Li Wenliang an apology”, and “We want freedom of speech”.  These conversations drew millions of views before the PRC government authorities deleted them. 

So, what do we do now?  COVID-19 has spread from Wuhan throughout the world and knows no national boundaries.  We must redouble our efforts to cooperate and share factual information about this disease rapidly and transparently.  

As a demonstration of the commitment of the US to assist our neighbours and partners, on March 18 USAID announced the release of $62 million in assistance funding to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in developing countries.  Together with the $37 million tranche of funds announced on March 2, this fulfills a pledge of up to $100 million announced by the Secretary of State on February 7 for international efforts to combat the pandemic.  

This is in addition to $1.25 billion that the State Department and USAID will programme to combat the pandemic internationally. 

US organisations are sending lifesaving medical supplies to the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the PRC, part of the wide-ranging US efforts to stop the deadly disease. Project Hope, a US-based non-profit, said that more than two million respirator masks, 11,000 protective suits, and 280,000 pairs of nitrile gloves donated by MAP International and MedShare arrived in Shanghai on February 2.  US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a tweet on February 4 that he is “grateful to the generous US organisations donating to the relief efforts”. 

Here in Malta, we are in contact with our Maltese partners to evaluate local needs and how the US may be able to assist.   

The world’s best hope to effectively manage the COVID-19 virus lies in international cooperation, international transparency, and complete honesty.  Like so many others, including the People’s Republic of China, the US has provided aid to other countries while we work across borders to empower doctors and researchers to find effective treatments and cures.  There is no other way. 

But when the crisis finally abates, we should take stock of the outcome and evaluate the costs of this breakdown in international collaboration, the effects of suppressing important factual information, the impact of stonewalling information sharing during the early stages of the epidemic, and the fallout from disinformation campaigns throughout the course of this pandemic.  We must never let it happen again.   

Accurate information must move freely – especially during crises. A government’s duty is to save lives, not save face.   

Mark Schapiro is Chargé d’Affaires, US Embassy  

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