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PBS' 'Frontline' Reveals 'China's COVID Secrets' in Thoughtful, Eye-Opening Exposé
February 2, 2021  | By Alex Strachan  | 34 comments

Borat called it the Wuhan flu. A certain national leader kept referring to it as "the China virus." And news headlines of late have been describing the hoops the World Health Organization is having to jump through to investigate the source of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, which turned from rumor to reality a year ago almost to the day.

It's against this backdrop that PBS Frontline unveils its extended-length investigative report China's COVID Secrets, Tuesday at 10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings), and it's worth every minute of your time.

The title is self-explanatory. No matter how much China's information ministry and other government officials try to spin it to the wider world, getting to the heart of COVID's origins is proving more difficult than perhaps even the WHO and other investigative agencies expected. This goes beyond the matter of simply securing the proper visas.

COVID Secrets opens with a health worker in China expressing his anger at how things unfolded in the hospital where he worked at the time, even as the Chinese city of Wuhan was placed under an official lockdown, little more than a year ago. That's proven fact — the lockdown happened — so it can't be denied.

"At least 54 days before that," though, Frontline reports, COVID cases were spreading throughout China. Leaked documents, secret recordings, and the testimony of medical professionals on the scene paint a harrowing picture of what really happened, and why. The program exposes, as best it can, "what China knew and what it chose to tell the world." Past is prologue.

As TV viewing, COVID Secrets suffers from the genre's now familiar shortfalls — non-stop, relentless "music," generated by AI noisemaking algorithms; frenzied, choppy editing at the outset, calculated to create a kind of buzzy nervousness on the part of the viewer; and a steady stream of first-person testimony that comes so quickly and at such a rapid pace that it's hard for the viewer to step back and put the big picture in any kind of perspective.

The program ventures into the seedy world of live-animal food markets, where it's all too easy for animal viruses to jump to humans, but admits nothing has been proven — which is why WHO officials want to get into Wuhan to undertake a proper examination. Frontline explains how information was shared privately at first, by doctors and patients, on the Internet, only for chat rooms, sites, and even links to be shut down without warning. The pathogen was spreading rapidly, but there was a concerted effort to control the spread of information. A month after the early indications of COVID became apparent, official records show that hospitals in the area noted sharp rises in cases of flu. That was the official picture. It was important to those in power that people not panic. Flu is controllable — it's something that everyone gets at some point in their lives. A new strain of SARS, on the other hand, is something entirely different. Panic is not good for the economy.

Annoying music and ADD-afflicted editing aside, COVID Secrets has much to recommend it. It has a lot to say about the role of social media, good and bad, and government state control of the media. The expert testimony is credible, believable, and effective. The world reaction to COVID-19 has been such a mess that there's something reassuring about seeing and hearing medical professionals speak in calm, rational, measured terms about what they know, what they don't know, and what they suspect.

Virology can seem mind-numbingly complicated at times, but these professionals — in China, the US, UK, and across Europe — put it in terms that anyone can understand, and be engaged by. Think Anthony Fauci, or rather a dozen Anthony Faucis, on a global, worldwide level, and you get a sense of just how compelling COVID Secrets' science reporting is.

The program's use of English-language and Chinese-language (with subtitles) news broadcasts — what Chinese citizens were told by their own state media — adds immeasurably to the program's effect, and has a lot to say about our own media and how different media outlets choose to report the news in their own way. Spin works. Weeks into the outbreak, Frontline reports, Chinese authorities were talking, not about a novel coronavirus, but "44 cases of viral pneumonia of unknown cause."

This isn't a question of semantics, as one academic tells Frontline: It's international law. Pandemics are serious. Their effects are potentially global. That's why there's a WHO. The only way a pandemic can be beaten is through a global, worldwide effort, and that can only be achieved through transparency. There's no room for secrets, even those motivated by economic considerations. Pandemics have a way of wrecking the global economy, not just that of one country.

COVID Secrets becomes more focused midway through its 90-minutes, and benefits for it. You still have to put up with that annoying music, but this is one program that's worth seeing through to the end. The future is still largely unknown, but you'll know a lot more for having watched this.

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