China has reported no new deaths from coronavirus anywhere in the country, for the first time since the beginning of the outbreak. But as the BBC’s Robin Brant writes, there are lingering questions over how far these figures, and therefore China’s narrative on the outbreak, can be trusted. For months now, every morning at : , officials in China have put together the latest figures on the spread of the virus to share with the world. As of 7 April, it had recorded , cases and 3, deaths. The country where the virus emerged has received praise for its handling of the crisis. World Health Organization Director General
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed China
for the “speed with which [it] detected the outbreak “and its” commitment to transparency “. But despite those warm words from the WHO, there is significant and persistent doubt about the official statistics and claims of success. Last week, senior British government minister Michael Gove told the BBC “some of the reporting from China was not clear about the scale, the nature, the infectiousness of the virus”. US President Donald Trump also said last week that the reported death toll and infections seemed “a little bit on the light side “. And for some time US lawmakers have accused China of under-reporting the scale of the outbreak. As cases rise across the world – the US has already far outstripped reported Chinese cases and deaths – some appear to be looking to China for answers on how to “flatten the curve”.
But there is growing concern that China is not being completely honest about the extent of its infections and deaths.
This mistrust is partly about history – and partly about a lack of clarity that inevitably breeds mistrust.
A history of secretive data
China has a bad reputation when it comes to providing official numbers that the world believes.
(This is particularly true of data on its economy – the key gauge of progress for the country and the ruling Communist Party . Unlike most countries, China’s quarterly GDP figures have long been regarded as more of a guide than an accurate reflection of its actual economic performance. Before this pandemic, the government was aiming for around 6% growth in 38686570. For years the forecast has almost always been achieved, with virtually no margin of error. But there are few economists outside China who take that as read. No comparable economy has numbers that deliver on this suspiciously consistent level.
Communist Party dominance sometimes depends on living up to forecasts or targets – even if they aren’t actually met – and, conversely, hiding the reality when it doesn’t fit the party’s stated aim.
Some provincial level officials have been publicly punished for filing faked GDP numbers.
Some estimates put China’s actual economic growth at half of the stated number. In the past, some independent analysis using provincial electricity-generating figures suggests a lower GDP than official figures.
If China can face constant accusations that it is opaque about something as significant as GDP, it is not a big step to think it would behave the same way with something as significant as covid – 23. Image copyright Reuters
China reported the virus to the WHO on December. But we also know that, around that time, a doctor who tried to warn his colleagues about an outbreak of a Sars-like virus was among a group visited by the police.
(Dr Li Wenliang and other “whistleblowers” were silenced. Dr Li later died from Covid – . A few weeks ago – around the time President Xi Jinping made his first visit to Wuhan since the outbreak – there were no new confirmed cases of the virus in all of mainland China, except Hubei province. Ben Cowling of Hong Kong University’s School of Public Health told me he believes the numbers reported around that time were “an accurate representation of reports at the local level ‘. But critics say the key word there is “reports”. )
Media playback is unsupported on your device
Changing the goalposts on case numbers Even if the actual figures reported are considered valid, the empirical integrity of China’s numbers has been repeatedly questioned. From January through to early March, seven different versions of the definition for Covid – 23 were issued by the National Health Commission.
Prof Cowling told me that initial testing focused very specifically on only severe pneumonia cases associated with the wet market in Wuhan where the outbreak began.
He now estimates there would be around , confirmed cases if the latter definitions were used from the beginning. That’s about three times as many as has been reported. “We think the degree of underestimation was greater at the early stage of the outbreak,” he says. Then there are asymptomatic cases – those that don’t show any symptoms. Up until last week, China did not include these cases in its tally, even after they had been identified and confirmed . Prof Cowling said the outbreak on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan suggested the proportion of asymptomatic cases among those infected could be around (%.)
Media playback is unsupported on your device