The first days and weeks of the coronavirus pandemic were crucial. So why did China wait to alert the world? The FT’s investigation, the first of a six-part series, examines what went wrong in Wuhan 👇
China’s response — and whether it dragged its feet — is now at the centre of a geopolitical blame game over the virus, which has infected 38m people, killed more than 1m and devastated economies Image
By late December, Geo Fei had read rumours online about the ‘unknown pneumonia’. He confronted officials in his village 120km from Wuhan about why they were ‘totally unprepared’. They were waiting for instructions from higher up. ‘It was shocking’ Image
Three weeks before Beijing publicly acknowledged the outbreak, doctors inside Wuhan Central Hospital already knew they had a problem: a viral pneumonia-like disease was spreading. But they were discouraged from reporting it Image
Within days, hospital staff were falling sick, a tell-tale sign of human transmission. The death of one doctor, 33-year-old Li Wenliang, hailed as a whistleblower for alerting his colleagues to the outbreak, provoked a firestorm of public anger Image
China’s opaque system of governance may have been partly to blame for its sluggish response. A public health adviser to the State Council described the role of local governments as ‘to keep the Communist party in power, not to promote transparency’ Image
So why didn’t Wuhan-like outbreaks erupt all over China?
The answer: strict lockdowns. With nearly the entire population forced into lockdown in January and February, ‘diagnoses weren’t made . . . the virus just burnt itself out’ Image
But Wuhan residents want answers for the government’s handling of the outbreak.

One is Zhong Hanneng, who lost his son Peng Yi, a 39-year-old primary school teacher, to Covid-19. The family held a large dinner on January 20. Weeks later, Peng Yi was dead Image
China’s reluctance to leap into action was understandable, said Dale Fisher, an infectious diseases specialist who worked in west African Ebola hotspots. It was a dynamic that would play out across the world over the following months Image
Chinese officials have traced the first confirmed Covid-19 case to December 1. But ‘patient zero’ may never be found — most who contract the virus have mild symptoms and may not know they were infected.

Read the first part of our six-month investigation: Image

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