President Donald Trump has twice now advanced the flawed theory that China nefariously continued to allow flights out of Wuhan, the city where the COVID-19 outbreak originated, to Western cities while blocking flights into other cities in China.
"You could fly out of Wuhan where the primary problem was … and you could go to different parts of the world, but you couldn’t go [from Wuhan] to Beijing and you couldn’t go to any place in China. So what’s that all about?" the president asked during a Fox News virtual town hall on May 3, implying that China may have sought to protect itself even as it was allowing infections to spread to other countries.
But that’s wrong. Flight records show China did block international commercial flights out of Wuhan after Jan. 23, according to Flightradar24, a global flight tracking service.
It appears the origin of Trump’s misguided speculation may be an op-ed by a Harvard professor who later "updated" his column to acknowledge that flight data does not confirm that China continued to allow commercial flights to various international destinations, including the U.S., after Jan. 23.
More than a week after the record had been set straight, though, Trump raised the bogus talking point during a press conference.
Trump, April 29: And then, why did China allow planes to fly out but not into China, but they allow planes to come out? And planes are coming out of Wuhan, and they’re coming out; they’re going all over the world. They’re going to Italy, very — very big time to Italy. But they’re going all over the world. But they’re not going into China. What was that all about?
Trump repeated the talking point during the Fox News virtual town hall on May 3.
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Trump, May 3: What they [Chinese leaders] really treated the world badly on: They stopped people going into China, but they didn’t stop people going into the USA and all over the world. So you could fly out of Wuhan, where the primary problem was, all of the problems, essentially. Also where the lab is. But you could fly out of Wuhan and you could go to different parts of the world, but you couldn’t go to Beijing, and you couldn’t go to any place in China. So what’s that all about?
We reached out to the White House to find out where the president was getting his information, but we did not get a response.
It appears the origin may be a column by historian and author Niall Ferguson in the (London) Sunday Times on April 5, in which he discussed questions that ought to be posed to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Among them: "[A]fter it became clear that there was a full-blown epidemic spreading from Wuhan to the rest of Hubei province, why did you cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China – on January 23 – but not from Hubei to the rest of the world?"
Hubei province is where the city of Wuhan is located.
Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, continued: "January is always a peak month for travel from China to Europe and America because of the lunar new year holiday. As far as I can tell from the available records, however, regular direct flights from Wuhan continued to run to London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco throughout January and in some cases into February. You have lost no time in restricting international travel into China now that Covid-19 has gone global; your approach was conspicuously different when you were exporting it to us."
The Jan. 23 date is significant because that is the day China implemented severe travel restrictions on Wuhan, halting train and air travel from the bustling city of 11 million people. That measure came two days after the country’s leading disease specialist, Zhong Nanshan, said in a press briefing that “since it is known that the virus can be transmitted from people to people, one thing to do is to strictly quarantine patients and track close contacts, which is probably the most important thing,” according to a timeline published by China. By that time, the virus was already known to have spread outside China, with the first recorded case in Thailand on Jan. 13.
However, the premise of Ferguson’s column — that China continued to allow flights from Wuhan to various international destinations including the U.S. after Jan. 23, even as China cut off travel between Wuhan and the rest of China — was later contested by Daniel Bell, dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University in China.
In a post to his website dated April 21, Bell said he reached out to Ferguson via email, and that Ferguson provided his sourcing. But upon closer inspection, Bell wrote, "the sources he sent did not support the allegation that there were regular commercial flights from Wuhan to the US and Europe after January 23rd and ‘in some cases into February.'"
While data Ferguson provided from global flight tracker FlightStats "seem[ed] to show that thirty-one flights left from Wuhan to cities in the US and Europe on or after Jan 23," when Bell checked those against data from a website for the Civil Aviation Administration of China, he found that most of those flights were cancelled. And a handful of others originating in Guangzhou that "in normal times would do a stopover in Wuhan on the way” to San Francisco instead flew "direct from Guangzhou, bypassing Wuhan."
"The records show that flights out of Wuhan to the rest of the world stopped around mid-day on the 23rd,, the same day China stopped flights from Wuhan to the rest of China," Bell wrote.
"Why does it matter?" Bell wrote. "If the Chinese government did allow regular flights from Wuhan to Western countries after January 23rd, it suggests the Chinese government deliberately allowed, if not encouraged, the spread of the virus to five cities in Western countries after it tried to control it in China."
We spoke to Ian Petchenik, the director of communications for Flightradar24, a global flight tracking service, and Petchenik confirmed that "there were no more normal, commercial flights" from Wuhan after Jan. 23. "They did stop people from going to the U.S. and to the rest of the world," he said.
After Jan. 23, flight data shows there were a few flights from Wuhan to destinations in Asia outside of China, Petchenik told us, but those may have been mostly empty planes returning to their base country. There were also a handful of flights from Wuhan chartered by the U.S. State Department to evacuate American citizens, including diplomats and their families, beginning on Jan. 28. Passengers on those planes were flown to military bases in California and were mandated to complete a 14-day quarantine.
On April 21, Ferguson provided an "update" to his April 5 column in which he acknowledged, “Data from sensors tracking actual flight paths would seem to indicate that no flights left from Wuhan itself to other countries in the world after January 23.” Ferguson wrote that he reached out to the U.S. company Flightspin, and that officials there "concluded that it was very unlikely indeed that any flights had gone from Wuhan to Western cities after January 23."
Ferguson added that "we now know that by that time (Jan. 23) thousands of infected citizens had already left Wuhan for other parts of China, so a ban on all flights out of China would have been needed to prevent the epidemic becoming a global pandemic."
"That is how COVID-19 spread so rapidly to the rest of the world," Ferguson said. "And it was happening long before January 23, because the Chinese authorities, for whatever reason, waited until that late date to place their cordon sanitaire around Hubei."
(The Trump administration announced travel restrictions to and from China on Jan. 31, effective Feb. 2. According to a New York Times report on April 4, nearly 40,000 people had arrived in the U.S. on direct flights from China since Trump imposed those travel restrictions.)
Whether China should have halted air travel to and from Wuhan sooner than Jan. 23, or cut off international travel to and from all of China, rather than just Hubei, is a different issue, however, than the one raised by Trump.
An article in the Economic Times on April 30 noted that while China cut domestic travel from Wuhan to other Chinese cities in late January, it continued to encourage international travel from other cities in China. And it wasn’t until March 26 that China, fearing the outbreak of a second wave of coronavirus from overseas, banned all foreigners from traveling to China.
But that’s not what Trump said, either. Trump said China continued to allow flights from Wuhan to destinations around the world — including the U.S. — at the same time that it banned travel from Wuhan into other parts of China. That’s incorrect.
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