According to a classified United States government intelligence report, China underreported the number of cases and deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Officials claimed that not only were the numbers incorrect, but that they were intentionally wrong.
The report was released amid pre-existing international suspicion surrounding China’s reporting and figures. In an effort to quell the concern, China revealed the number of their asymptomatic cases for the first time on Tuesday.
In China, people who test positive for the coronavirus but do not show any symptoms are not recorded as a confirmed case. This is different to other countries’ approaches, including South Korea and Japan, whereby individuals who test positive are recorded in official numbers – regardless of whether they display any symptoms of the virus.
China, however, remains adamant that its numbers are accurate. “The Chinese government has been taking an open, transparent and responsible attitude all along and publishing the latest figures to the world every day,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Wednesday.
The outbreak of the virus now sweeping the globe was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December 2019. While the official numbers rose sharply in China the following month, they started dropping heavily by the end of February, holding steady at approximately 80,000 cases.
By early March, President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan to meet with medical personnel, government officials and other community workers who were battling the virus on the front lines.
During the worst of the outbreak, China implemented strict controls on movement, ramped up testing capabilities and built dedicated hospitals for coronavirus patients within a matter of days.
Such efforts were later praised by the World Health Organization (WHO).
During Wednesday’s daily press briefing, US President Donald Trump claimed that China’s tally seems to be on the “light side,” adding that “I’m being nice when I say that.”
When asked whether China was being dishonest, he responded saying, “he wasn’t an accountant from China.”
However, doubt from within China also exists. During the height of the outbreak in early February, some residents in Wuhan were concerned that tests were indicating false negatives.
Other residents claim that the official death toll of some 2,500 Wuhan residents was too low, especially since some funeral homes reported handing out around 500 urns of cremated remains per day in mid to late March.
“It can’t be right … because the incinerators have been working round the clock, so how can so few people have died?” asked one Wuhan resident.
Inaccurate or deceiving?
According to Hsu Li Yang, head of the infectious diseases program at the National University of Singapore, every official tally around the world is likely wrong: “… it is important to understand that these numbers – be it from China, Italy, Singapore or the U.S.A. – are all inaccurate, and they are all underestimates to varying degrees of the actual number of infections,” he argues.
China, however, faces a continual doubt whether their published figures are intentionally deceiving or based on honest but inaccurate calculations of its vast population. Some observers routinely doubt the accuracy of Beijing’s statistics on a host of fronts, including the economy and past epidemics.
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