A Timeline of Events Leading Up to the Coronavirus Outbreak in China

By Penny Zhou

Jan. 20 is possibly one of the most important dates on the timeline of China’s coronavirus outbreak.

Before that day, people in Wuhan were carefree and unconcerned about the virus, due to reassuring announcements from authorities.

They weren’t wearing masks. They were visiting infected hospitals that don’t separate fever patients. They were even enjoying massive banquets where over 40,000 people shared meals together.

But soon after, China’s top coronavirus expert, Zhong Nanshan, appeared on state media to confirm that the virus is actually contagious. That’s when the country started to panic. Authorities began taking drastic measures, but it still wouldn’t stop the flood of tragic incidents from happening.

While you’re probably being bombarded with scary new updates every day, NTD would like to help explain the incidents leading up to Jan. 20 and discuss the idea that this public health event was not an accident. The disastrous outbreak and its coverup were almost certain to happen under the country’s communist system.

When could have China’s authorities have pulled the alarm, enacted preventative measures, and avoided the loss of life?

Earliest Sign

The earliest sign probably showed up in mid-November.

“It’s actually been very long. We have been working under very bad protective measures for almost two months now,” Dr. Wei, a physician in a Wuhan clinic told NTD on Jan. 22 in a phone interview. Dr. Wei said his clinic has been experiencing a surge of fever patients since last November.

A research paper later published may have affirmed what he said.

Commenting on the paper published by Lancet, Infectious disease expert Daniel Lucey told Science Magazine that if the new data is accurate, the first human infections must have occurred in November 2019—if not earlier.

Whistleblower Issues First Warning

Fast forward to late December when information about a mysterious pneumonia outbreak was already circulating inside China’s hospitals. Doctors warned families and friends to stay away from a place called the Huanan Seafood market and to be careful of a potential SARS-like virus.

That includes Dr. Li Wenliang, who posted the lab test result of a coronavirus patient in a group chat to a class of about 150 students on Dec. 30, writing: “7 cases of SARS have been confirmed in the South China Fruit and Seafood Market and they were isolated in the emergency department of our hospital.  Please tell your families to take preventative measures.”

li wenliang-wuhan-wechat-message
Wuhan Doctor Li Wenliang warning friends in a WeChat group about the coronavirus. (Social media/screenshot)

In later interviews, some doctors also revealed that healthcare workers were starting to become infected around this time, a significant sign that the virus could spread between humans.

This should have alerted health experts.

Health officials in Wuhan were indeed alerted. But instead of ramping up safety measures and alerting the public, on Dec. 30 they issued a document (pdf) forbidding all medical institutes or individuals from disclosing any information regarding the new disease.

At midnight the same day, Dr. Li Wenliang was summoned by the police. They questioned him about why he was spreading rumors online. A few days later, Dr. Li was asked to sign a document reading, “We want you to cooperate with the police, and listen to our reminder and stop the illegal act. Can you do that?”

Li wrote, “I can.”

Letter of Admonition by Wuhan Public Security Bureau.
Letter of Admonition by Wuhan Public Security Bureau. (Public Domain)

The 34-year-old whistleblower later died from the illness on Feb. 7.

doctor Li Wenliang Coronavirus whistleblower
People attend a vigil to mourn for doctor Li Wenliang in Hong Kong, China, on Feb. 7, 2020. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Public Announcement

On Dec. 31, Wuhan’s health commission finally posted an announcement about the outbreak on their website. They confirmed 27 cases of the infection and said there was no evidence that the disease was contagious among humans.

But according to a research paper written by Chinese officials, which was published later, the number of virus cases had reached at least 105 by the end of 2019. At that point, 15 people had already died.

A media report also showed that one major hospital in Wuhan, Xiehe Hospital, was forced to transform an entire floor of the facility into “quarantine space for contagious disease.”

Not knowing about the potential danger, Wuhan locals were still visiting the potential origin of the virus. One Chinese reporter saw the seafood market operating as usual on Dec. 31.

None of the people the reporter talked with knew anything about the viral pneumonia and nobody was wearing masks.

Compared to carefree residents in Wuhan, those with better sources of information started taking a completely different kind of approach.

According to an internal document, a military-affiliated college in Wuhan started a de facto lockdown on Jan. 2. The document requires a “strict check” for anyone entering the campus. Visitors had to “go through fever checking and people are forbidden to enter the campus if their body temperatures are over 100 F.”

On Jan. 4, the Hong Kong government activated a “serious response level” in reaction to the outbreak.

This was nearly 20 days before Wuhan city’s lockdown.

On Jan. 6, the center for disease control in Shanghai acquired the complete gene sequencing of the new virus. They found over 89 percent similarity between the new virus and the deadly SARS virus that caused a pandemic in 2003.

The information was sent to China’s national CDC in an internal document.

The center recommended that authorities implement preventative measures in all public places.

Suppression of Data

Then came an extremely quiet period for the coronavirus. From Jan. 6 to Jan. 17. Wuhan authorities reported almost zero new cases.

The lull reassured the Chinese people. The mysterious pneumonia didn’t appear to be a contagious disease.

But there might be another reason behind the quiet—this 11 day period was when authorities in Wuhan City and Hubei Province held their most important annual political meetings. Over 2,000 “representatives of the people” gathered to discuss the “amazing achievements of 2019” and how 2020 will be “a tremendous and promising year.”

The virus? It was barely mentioned.

In an interview with Hong Kong media Initium, Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, Zhou Xueguang said that he was not surprised by the Wuhan government’s response. He explained that downplaying negative incidents, especially during major political events, is the Chinese government’s coping mechanism.

He said, “Only that the consequence of following their playbook was so disastrous this time, and that is something the officials didn’t expect.”

Meanwhile, the reality of the situation was getting worse.

According to an SOS post on Chinese social media site Weibo, a person’s dad was confirmed to have viral pneumonia. But the Xiehe Hospital in Wuhan refused to admit the father due to a shortage of hospital beds.

Another netizen posted that his entire family was infected. They went to the Tongji Hospital in Wuhan and saw that “there were so many patients that some had to lie on the floor of the corridor.” His father was also sent home to self-quarantine because there weren’t enough hospital beds.

The post was later deleted. So were all other posts in the user’s account.

That’s the week Wuhan authorities didn’t report a single confirmed or suspected case.

Spread Encouraged

Everything seemed to be under control. On Jan. 17, Wuhan’s tourism bureau even issued over 200,000 free tourism tickets. It was an effort to entice people to visit the city, so they could experience the “Chinese style and warm sentiments of Wuhan.”

Not only was the Chinese regime cracking down on the negative “rumors,” they were also working hard to prevent information from making its way out of mainland China.

On Jan. 14, a group of Hong Kong journalists accompanied Hong Kong experts who were invited to conduct research on the virus outbreak. The reporters were later detained by Chinese police, who photographed their reporter IDs and asked them to delete all footage taken inside hospitals.

From Jan. 12 to 16, an estimated over 3 million passengers left Wuhan by train, to visit other cities in China.

On Jan. 18, Baibuting, a populous district in Wuhan, held an annual banquet to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday.

But three days before, staff from the neighborhood committee who were concerned about the outbreak asked if they could cancel the banquet. But district officials denied the request.

Over 40,000 families eventually joined the banquet.

If you’re a resident of Wuhan, and you’ve followed the government’s directive to not “believe or spread conspiracy theories,” here’s what you’d know about the coronavirus: First, there is zero infection among medical staff; Second, there is no evidence that the disease is contagious; And third, the outbreak is preventable and controllable.

But on Jan. 20, for the first time ever, a Chinese expert said there was actually human to human transmission of the virus. The number of infected people exploded. Three days later, the entire city of Wuhan was put under lockdown. Over 50 million people were impacted.