Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared a "people's war" against the coronavirus.
But as Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright, apocryphally said, "In war, truth is the first casualty."
And so it seems in China, epicenter of the epidemic, where truth and trust are in as short of supply as surgical masks reportedly are.
The ability of international institutions and other governments to rapidly respond to the outbreak was compromised by China's initially opaque response to the virus. The relative reticence of Xi to take the lead made matters worse, which is perhaps why the Chinese president has more publicly re-emerged after his conspicuous absence at the start of the virus crisis.
Beijing recently released a speech Xi made to the normally secretive Politburo Standing Committee in which he claimed that he had "issued demands about the efforts to prevent and control" the virus on Jan. 7, weeks before he publicly spoke about the outbreak that would soon break beyond China's borders to become a global health concern. But instead of quelling the controversy the speech has only led to more questions about the alacrity and efficacy of China's response, which is in keeping with Beijing's authoritarian approach.
The party's "campaign of repression and censorship in this new health crisis is not an anomaly. It is the rule," Prachi Vidwans, a Human Rights Foundation research associate told an editorial writer in an e-mail exchange. When the virus emerged, "the government responded with opacity, hoping to prevent bad news from affecting its approval rating and its economy," Vidwans said. Of course, both have happened: Even in an increasingly Orwellian China, dissent — especially after the death of a doctor who was reprimanded for reporting the disease early on — has emerged. And China's economy has been hit — just as others will be, given the nation's outsized economic role. Indeed, Apple, which announced on Monday that the virus would take a bite out of revenue, won't be the last multinational firm hit by the global crisis.
"This is a case where you can see how authoritarianism elsewhere affects you, even if you live in a free and democratic country," Vidwans said.
Including America, which should be the global exemplar of transparency.
That task would be difficult in any circumstances. It will be particularly challenging in what the World Health Organization calls an "infodemic" — which the WHO describes as "an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."
America's world-class scientific community can combat this infodemic with data-driven conclusions. Everyday people can help, too, by arming themselves with legitimate information and not allowing xenophobia to exacerbate the crisis. And given their legislative and publicity platform, lawmakers have a special responsibility to focus on facts, which is why it is so disappointing that Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, took to Fox News to further the already-debunked theory that the virus was potentially connected to a biosafety lab in Wuhan, China.
Geopolitics are already strained with the new virus, and conspiracy theories will only solidify a drift that may make it even harder to garner Chinese cooperation. Cotton, and others not operating with substantiated facts, should be more responsible.
The U.S. cannot control China's authoritarian tendencies.
It can, however, offer a model of transparency and truth that the world needs now more than ever.