The Chinese authorities have revised up the numbers of corona deaths and infections in Wuhan. But the numbers are still unlikely to be thaе low. Social media are buzzing with speculation.
The official corona death toll in Wuhan rose by one half on Friday, from 2,579 to 3,869. According to the city government, the new figure also includes people who died in hospitals at home, or in the overwhelming initial phase, and who were not counted in all the chaos. This time, the death toll would be accurate. However, the figure is still improbably low compared to scientific analysis.
The official deaths by Covid-19 have become part of an international struggle, a showdown between political systems. While authoritarian China is currently targeting 84,152 infections and 4,642 deaths, the US is 671,425 infections and 33,286 deaths. The superiority of the Chinese system has been demonstrated, at least for those who believe the numbers.
But Beijing has a history of manipulating numbers, and Chinese statistics are notoriously unreliable. In addition, the coronavirus for the Communist Party of China is an existential issue. “Throughout Chinese history, epidemics, wars and natural disasters have ushered in the fall of dynasties,” said Xun Zhou, a historian at the University of Essex. “Control over the virus is critical to the CCP’s political legitimacy.”
So the low numbers in China arouse suspicion, even more so than in other countries, where testing and counting are equally gaps. When long lines appear at Wuhan crematoriums from relatives who come to collect the urns from their deceased, speculation immediately arises. A journalist from the news site Caixin counts 5,000 urns in one of the eight city crematoriums. On social media, this leads to wild estimates of 40,000 deaths.
There are also doubts about the figures among the residents of Wuhan. Some think there have been hundreds more deaths, others thousands, one man says there have been 20-30 thousand. Their estimates cannot be verified. Doctors and nurses are under pressure not to give interviews, relatives cancel interviews at the last minute and journalists are chased away from the crematoriums.
The fact that Wuhan city government is adjusting the numbers itself may be the result of additional research, but it also appears to be a tactic to calm things down. With 50,333 infections (325 more than before) and 3,869 deaths (1,290 more), Wuhan can still present himself as a success while countering the criticism. “We strive not to leave any Covid-19 case undocumented,” authorities said.
But the new numbers still seem like an underestimate. According to a study by the University of Hong Kong, based on the number of infections among evacuated foreigners, there were already 75,815 infections in Wuhan on January 25. Residents also wonder why at the height of the outbreak, 42,000 doctors from all over China were sent to Wuhan, a city of 94,000 registered doctors and nurses, if there were only 50,333 covid infections.
The figures are also rattling outside Wuhan. For example, outside the Hubei province, only 15,997 infections have been reported, while according to China expert Derek Scissors, at least 27,000 infected people left Hubei before the lockdown. “Wuhan was in the spotlight, where the authorities have pulled out all the stops,” said Zhou, who is preparing a book on Chinese health policy. “In remote places, it’s easier to keep an eye out for outbreaks.”
China’s recent good news reports should also be taken with a grain of salt. Officially, one local infection has been identified in Wuhan in the past two weeks, and 68 across China. The precautions remain in place, according to the government, because many cases are imported from abroad and there are still many asymptomatic cases.
According to Zhou, that is a diversion strategy, which should conceal the true seriousness of the situation. “The authorities are trying to put the problem outside of China. It is a way of seeking a scapegoat. In the 1980s, the authorities also tackled the AIDS epidemic. AIDS was then presented as a foreign disease, which they now also do with Covid-19. ”
The asymptomatic cases also appear to be a label under which unwelcome information is stored. “Nobody wants to report new cases, because then Wuhan has to go back to lockdown,” says a resident, in whose neighborhood ten asymptomatic cases have been found in the past two weeks. “The economy is not doing well, shop operators are protesting for rent reductions. A new lockdown would not be accepted, so the authorities are playing the game. ”