18:14 GMT23 November 2020
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    The New York Times has taken to attacking China’s disease reporting system, even as the COVID-19 pandemic bears down on the US. However, one expert told Sputnik the paper willfully misrepresents China’s complex but effective system by making circular arguments.

    Even as its hometown has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US, with nearly as many cases by itself as China had, the New York Times ran a story titled “China Created a Fail-Safe System to Track Contagions. It Failed.” This Sunday story claims that China failed to use the system it developed after the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak to track future viral diseases. 

    However, KJ Noh, a peace activist and scholar on the geopolitics of Asia, and a frequent contributor to CounterPunch and Dissident Voice, told Radio Sputnik’s Loud and Clear Tuesday that the Times piece ignores key factual information to demonize China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    According to the Times article, the Contagious Disease National Direct Reporting System developed in the aftermath of the 2003 SARS epidemic was aimed at preventing future such outbreaks, but “didn’t work.”

    “After doctors in Wuhan began treating clusters of patients stricken with a mysterious pneumonia in December, the reporting was supposed to have been automatic. Instead, hospitals deferred to local health officials who, over a political aversion to sharing bad news, withheld information about cases from the national reporting system - keeping Beijing in the dark and delaying the response,” the Times article claims.

    “The central health authorities first learned about the outbreak not from the reporting system, but after unknown whistle-blowers leaked two internal documents online,” the article claims.

    However, according to Noh, the Times fails to take into account the complexity of the reporting system.

    “In this system, you get into trouble if you don’t report - not if you report. So that assertion that somehow the Chinese didn’t report because they were trying to cover their rear, it doesn’t make any sense,” Noh told hosts Brian Becker and John Kiriakou.

    “This is an epidemic out of the blue. There is no blame to be apportioned for this … China has had a national reporting system since the 1950s, and since that period, the detection rate has improved 56-fold, so it’s constantly getting better. One of the reasons why they put it in is because China was subject to biowarfare by the US during the Korean War - and this has been extensively documented. But, this automated system is called CIDARS - the China Infectious Disease Automated-Alert Response System - and it's coordinated with another system called the NIDRIS - that’s the national reporting system - and the way that it works is if there’s a case, you diagnose it,” Noh explained.

    Noh noted that diagnosis itself is key, because if the illness hasn’t been diagnosed, it doesn’t get reported.

    “There are 6,000 stations reporting this information, and if every single one of them would report anything that came up to them, there would be so much noise in the system that it would be impossible to discern anything,” he noted. 

    “If the diagnosis fits one of 35 notifiable diseases - and it passes a certain threshold of occurrences and it has been confirmed - then its entered into the system, which sends it to a program, and this is the automated part that scans for aberrations. The input is not automatic, the scanning is automatic … if it’s deemed likely to be an occurrence, then the information is sent by text, SMS, to a county CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] researcher who manually verifies or rejects,” Noh explained.

    “If the signal is deemed plausible, then at that point it’s considered verified, and it’s sent to the county, higher-level CDC for a field investigation. And then a field investigation is conducted, and it's either rejected or sent on for further action.”

    The Times article also states that while China has “cast itself as a model” amid the US and the rest of the world’s struggle to contain the disease, this “triumphant narrative obscures the early failures in reporting cases, squandered time that could have been used to slow infections in China before they exploded into a pandemic.”

    “This is pure propaganda,” Noh commented.

    “It is creating an alternative universe in which everything China does is wrong, and this is part of the general propaganda offensive, which is to say that first, this is a Chinese coronavirus, it’s endemic, it’s systemic to the Chinese system,” Noh said. 

    “And of course, correlate to that is that it can’t happen here. This is the ideological hubris which has gotten us to this point, this blindness which instead of preparing, learning, even lauding what China did, they invent flaws to beat up China,” he said.

    “The first signal that [shows] this article is fraudulent is the headline. Now, there’s no such thing as a fail-safe system, so you’ve already set up a tautology … Epidemiology is complex, so when you call something fail-safe, you’ve already set up the premise for your argument. And this, we have to remember, is a black swan,” Noh said of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “The second thing in this article is there is no timeline. Now, any first-year law school student knows if you’re making a case of malfeasance  or error … anything drawing causality or consequence, you draw up a timeline to see if this theory of the case holds. There is none here, because if you looked at the timeline, the timeline wouldn’t uphold the claim. The fact is the Chinese reported it [COVID-19] very, very rapidly on [December] 27. It went up the chain, and the CDC started taking action. And on January 1, the Chinese CDC was in contact with the US CDC telling them everything that had happened. And very rapidly after that, the WHO [World Health Organization] was involved, the sequences were published, and action was taken on a large scale,” Noh added.

    “The third signal that tells you that this article is problematic is there are no diagrams. Now, the New York Times has a fantastic graphic arts department. So, they can create incredible diagrams and graphics, but they don’t. And the reporting system is a complex system, and the fact that they are not showing that to you shows that they are trying to obfuscate, not clarify. So, already, you know this does not pass the smell test. The New York Times view put forth in this article is it envisages the alert system being like a light switch or a panic button or some fire alarm. It’s a child’s vision of the world … it’s a complex system. It involves a complex process,” Noh stressed.

    The reporting system is primarily set up to detect known diseases, Noh added.

    “The key thing is that this was a disease of unknown origin … The system is primarily set up to detect known diseases ... it is actually quite common not to report that something is unknown. This underreporting is endemic on a global scale. In fact, many countries will not even report unknown pneumonia. But once it’s been reported, it’s resolved and investigated at the county level, not at some national level … it’s investigated at the county level, and this actually did happen. It happened in a very rapid process, so that assertion that the Times is making does not make any sense. The Chinese system requires lab confirmation, and that also puts a brake into the system, and it can also generate a lot of false positives, negative signals.”

    “It's a complex system that has a fairly good success rate, but it’s certainly not this kind of perfect, omniscient disease panopticon that all of a sudden failed because the bureaucrats in Wuhan suddenly intervened. That is a complete mischaracterization, and the New York Times is engaging in journalistic malpractice when it puts forth that argument,” Noh added.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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