Helping the NYT Understand Its Own Reporting: China Was not the Cause of the Worldwide Spread of Coronavirus

The New York Times had a very interesting piece on efforts by China’s government to conceal and downplay the threat posed by the coronavirus. The piece reports on a number of Chinese government documents and directives that sought to minimize the threat posed by the pandemic.

However the paper seriously misrepresents the meaning of its research, telling readers:

“It may never be clear whether a freer flow of information from China would have prevented the outbreak from morphing into a raging global health calamity. But the documents indicate that Chinese officials tried to steer the narrative not only to prevent panic and debunk damaging falsehoods domestically. They also wanted to make the virus look less severe — and the authorities more capable — as the rest of the world was watching.”

The pandemic had already spread to Europe before the end of December. There is nothing in the NYT’s piece indicating that the Chinese government had a clear understanding of the nature of the coronavirus before the beginning of January. The documents referred to in the piece were drafted in January or even February. This means that the spread of the pandemic to Europe preceded any efforts by China’s government’s to minimize the threat posed by the pandemic, therefore there is nothing here to suggest that a freer flow of information would have prevented the coronavirus from becoming a worldwide pandemic.

This note originally appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.