‘Out of Control’: Wuhan Health Care Worker Sheds New Light on How COVID’s Early Days Really Unfolded in China

February 2, 2021

At the end of December 2019 and through early January 2020, Chinese health authorities repeatedly told the public that the outbreak of what would come to be known as COVID-19 was under control and that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.

But in the new FRONTLINE documentary China’s COVID Secrets, a health care worker from Wuhan Central Hospital, one of the hospitals hardest hit in the pandemic’s early weeks, says it was an open secret among hospital workers that the disease, which authorities were then calling a viral pneumonia, was spreading from person to person.

“Everyone knew it was human-to-human transmission. Even a fool would know,” the interviewee says. FRONTLINE is protecting the individual’s identity because Wuhan’s health care professionals have been forbidden from talking to international media without authorization.

“So, why say there is no human transmission? This made us very confused. Very confused and very angry,” the interviewee says.

It was not until January 20, 2020, that the Chinese government confirmed human-to-human transmission of the virus, but the Wuhan Central Hospital worker began suspecting it “around the 5th or 7th of January … there were so many people who had a fever.” The interviewee said that by the 9th or 10th, the hospital’s respiratory department was full: “I realized that this thing had become big. It was out of control.”

This interview marks the first time someone from Wuhan Central Hospital has spoken to international journalists about what was happening in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. According to the health care worker, as Chinese government officials and leading respiratory experts downplayed the virus to the public, hospital leaders prevented doctors and nurses from sounding the alarm.

“The hospital told us that that we weren’t allowed to speak to anyone. They wouldn’t even let us wear masks. They said they were afraid of causing panic among the patients,” the health care worker told FRONTLINE in the above excerpt.

Some health care professionals later told Chinese media they tried voicing concerns to the authorities, but local and provincial officials ignored them. As the documentary notes, the period cited by the Wuhan Central Hospital worker coincided with 12 days of annual political meetings in Wuhan attended by city and provincial officials.

“There are indications that Wuhan city officials did not want information about this outbreak to spread, because, you know, they really want things to go as smooth as possible to make themselves look good,” AP reporter Dake Kang says in the above excerpt.

“There also could have been an order from the top down where they were saying, you know, basically, ‘Get this under control but don’t tell anyone, because we don’t wanna alarm anyone.’ It’s very possible that there was kind of a systemic failure,” Kang says. “It’s a perfect storm of multiple failures happening at the same time in different parts of the government bureaucracy.”

FRONTLINE reached out to the local and provincial governments for comment but did not receive a response. China’s central government insists it “took the most comprehensive, rigorous and thorough measures” in responding to the coronavirus and acted in a timely manner. The government also said that on Jan. 7, 2020, President Xi Jinping issued epidemic response instructions, although the details of those instructions have not been made public. By the time China’s government confirmed human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 on Jan. 20, 2020, the virus had spread beyond China’s borders.

The health care worker’s account is just one element of new reporting in China’s COVID Secrets. Premiering Feb. 2, the documentary draws on leaked documents, secret recordings and firsthand accounts to reveal the gulf between what Chinese scientists and officials knew in the early weeks of the outbreak and what they told the world.

“I believe that the true history needs to be remembered,” the health care worker says. “We need to learn the lessons so that this doesn’t happen again.”

For the full story, watch China’s COVID Secrets, a coproduction with the BBC directed and produced by Jane McMullen. The documentary premieres Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings). It will also be available to stream in FRONTLINE’s online collection of documentaries, on YouTube and in the PBS Video App.  

Jane McMullen

Jane McMullen, Documentary Filmmaker & Journalist


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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