Because the 2019n-CoV virus, better known as the Wuhan coronavirus, became headline news worldwide at the end of January 2020, a key question remains: How many people are infected? or have they died of the coronavirus? While the Chinese Government maintains its transparency on the dissemination of information in real time, there are many reasons to doubt official figures.
The Chinese installment management system: recipe for cover-ups
In China, control of the official discourse on crises is paramount, according to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mainly, this control is achieved by silencing the media and censoring social networks to a large extent and keeping a low number of victims for public knowledge, it is another tool that is often used in times of emergency.
There is a term in Chinese administrative jargon called 突 发 事件, which can be translated as “sudden incident”, “unforeseen event” or “emergency”. This denomination may include natural, health, man-made disasters, transportation accidents and social protests.
Depending on the number of victims, both injured and dead, each level of the administration is legally obliged to inform the following: from local to provincial, from provincial to central. If an incident occurs with a lower number of victims than the one established by the administrative category, it does not reach the level of serious incident, so it can be handled locally. In this way, the administration in charge will be more likely to avoid any fault, sanction or inspection.
As detailed in this article, these are the parameters that define the different types of ‘incidents':
A particularly serious accident refers to an accident that caused more than 30 deaths, or more than 100 serious injuries, or a direct economic loss of more than 100 million yuan; a major accident refers to an accident that caused more than 10 deaths, or injured between 50 and 100 people. General accidents refer to accidents that cause the death of less than 3 people, or seriously injured less than 10 people.
A particularly serious accident involves more than 30 deaths, or more than one hundred serious injuries, or a direct economic loss of more than one hundred million yuan. A major accident refers to a fact that caused more than ten deaths or if there were between 50 and one hundred people injured. General accidents are those that cause the death of less than three people, or serious injuries to less than 10 people.
This has created a mentality for officials to instinctively reduce the number of victims in the reports, which has allowed the Government to modify the official discourse as required.
Kingsley Edney, a Chinese affairs specialist, explains in his book “The globalization of Chinese propaganda”:
The Party-State response has moved toward engaging in a battle over the public's understanding of those (sudden) events: defining the truth of an incident, setting the media's agenda, defining the limits of the debate, and shutting down the ability of those who violate those limits to have their voices heard.
The response of the State-party is directed towards a battle that seeks to manipulate the public's understanding of such (sudden) events: determine the veracity of an incident, establish the media agenda, define the limits of the debate and eliminate the capacity of those who violate these limits so that their voices are heard.
In 2003, during the SARS outbreak, similar patterns were performed when patients were hidden during an inspection of the World Health Organization in order to keep the figures low. Apparently, the same mentality is currently established: on January 30, the head of the health commission of Huanggang City, near Wuhan, was separated from her position because she could not provide figures on the health situation. While the official might not have had accurate numbers, she is also very likely not to know what to say for fear of giving too high a figure.
According to Huang Yanzhong, an expert in the health area of China and author of The Control of Health in Contemporary China:
If you look at the way (Wuhan) reported the disease, after January 5, they cease to provide reports, and that was not resumed until January 11. In that period, there was no information from the government about the disease. But there were two important political meetings going on (between January 5 and 11): the city People’s Congress meeting and the political consultative conference. These are considered important meetings to appoint new leaders, make personnel changes, all at the local level. (Wuhan officials) didn’t want the bad news to ruin the meetings.
If one observes how he reported (Wuhan) about the disease, after January 5 he stops giving information, and resumed on the 11th of that same month. During that period, the Government did not issue any report on the disease. But (between January 5 and 11) two important political meetings were held: the town's People's Congress meeting and the political advisory conference. Both meetings are important since new leaders are appointed there, staff changes are made; All locally. (Wuhan officials) did not want bad news to ruin such assemblies.
The scientific extrapolations
Epidemiologists use research models in cases of virus transmission, a method that depends largely on the quality and reliability of the data obtained. Several medical and academic institutions have executed models on Wuhan's coronavirus and all conclude that the actual numbers of infected and deceased victims are three to ten times higher than the official figure provided by the Chinese Government. Citing The Lancet, a medical journal reviewed by experts, this article states:
New modeling research estimates that up to 75,800 individuals in the Chinese city of Wuhan may have been infected with 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) as of Jan. 25, 2020. The authors caution that given the lack of a robust and detailed timeline of records of suspected, probable, and confirmed cases and close contacts, the true size of the epidemic and its pandemic potential remains unclear
New model-based research estimates that up to 75,800 people in the Chinese city of Wuhan may have been infected with the new coronavirus 2019 (2019-nCoV) since January 25, 2020. The authors warn that, given the lack of a chronology Solid and detailed records of suspected, probable, confirmed and close contacts, the real magnitude of the epidemic and its pandemic potential are still unclear.
On February 6, the official number of infected patients based on Chinese data indicates a little more than 28,000 reported cases.
Independent coverage of Chinese sources
Independent journalism has not completely disappeared in China: some media, such as the Caixin financial news organization and citizen journalists have covered the outbreak of the virus, and all have signaled a cover-up by the authorities. Moreover, quite a few patients who died of pneumonia have not been categorized as patients with coronaviruses. Such manipulation has led to the reduction of the mortality rate by approximately 2%.
According to Maria Repnikova, an expert in China recently interviewed by Global Voices:
The (Caixin) article shows how the local authorities enabled a cover-up that lasted nearly a month by threatening or silencing whistle-blower doctors, downplaying the epidemic’s reach and concealing the fact that the virus could be transmitted between people.
The article by (Caixin) shows how local authorities facilitated cover-up over a month, threatening or silencing informant doctors, minimizing the extent of the epidemic and hiding the fact that the virus could be transmitted between people.
The author also explains the reason why central authorities have tolerated criticism of coverage by the authorities:
With social stability as their ultimate aim, the authorities try to strike a fragile balance between political control and curated transparency, alternating between censorship or propaganda and allowing the media, or its surrogates, to press for accountability
With the main objective of social stability, the authorities try to strike the fragile balance between the political control and the transparency selected, alternating between censorship or propaganda and allowing the media, or their substitutes, to put pressure on accountability.
Much more daring is the coverage made by citizen journalism, people who do not work for large communication groups and who assume extreme risks, work covertly and covertly show a different picture to that presented by the authorities.
An example of this phenomenon is the coverage of Chen Qiushi, who publishes videos of hospitals and morgues in order to question the actual figures provided by the Wuhan authorities:
我们 搜集 到 了 足够 多 的 证据 ， 证明 武汉 的 医疗 、 急救 运转。 今后 我 不会 再去 拍摄 和 追踪 死亡 与 火化 的 信息。 因为 大家 心中 应该 已经 有了 判断 ， 我 也 真的 不忍心 一次 次 去 打扰 逝者。 请 您 安息 吧 ~~ pic.twitter.com/nZoeYGt86m
– 陈 秋实 （陳 秋實） (@ chenqiushi404) February 4, 2020
We have collected enough evidence that health, emergency and morgue services in Wuhan are collapsed. I will no longer photograph or follow death and cremation. Everyone must have already made a decision, sincerely I don't have the courage to disturb the deceased again and again. May they rest in peace ~~
Interestingly, on February 1, the Chinese social media platform Tencent presented figures close to the scientific research mentioned above, although a bit concise as noted by some Internet users:
On late Saturday evening (Feb. 1), the Tencent webpage showed confirmed cases of the Wuhan virus in China as standing at 154,023, 10 times the official figure at the time. It listed the number of suspected cases as 79,808, four times the official figure.
Late Saturday night (February 1), Tencent's website showed confirmed cases of Wuhan virus in China at 154,023, 10 times more than the official numbers at the time. The number of suspected cases was included in 79 808, which quadruples the official figure.
Epidemiologists expect credible figures to continue their work, so it is important to remember that behind each number there is a life in danger, an exhausted doctor and a worried and distressed family.
Read the Global Voices special coverage on the Wuhan coronavirus impact.