China’s official death toll from an outbreak of COVID-19 yesterday spiked dramatically after authorities changed their counting methods, fueling concern that the epidemic is far worse than being reported.
Under criticism at home over the handling of the crisis, the Chinese Communist Party dismissed two top-ranking officials in Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The developments came hours after Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) claimed “positive results” from efforts to contain an epidemic that has now officially killed 1,367 people and infected nearly 60,000.
However, the WHO warned that it was too soon to declare victory.
“I think it’s way too early to try to predict the beginning, the middle or the end of this epidemic right now,” WHO Health Emergencies Program executive director Michael Ryan said.
In Hubei and its capital, Wuhan, where tens of millions of people have been trapped as part of an unprecedented quarantine effort, 242 new deaths were reported yesterday.
Another 14,840 people were confirmed to be infected in Hubei alone, with the new cases and deaths by far the biggest one-day increases since the crisis began.
Outside of Hubei, there were 12 more deaths, but the number of new cases fell for a ninth day in a row, with 312 extra patients.
Hubei authorities said that the increases were because they had broadened their definition for infection to include people “clinically diagnosed” via lung imaging.
Up until now, they had been documenting cases using a more sophisticated laboratory test.
Health officials said that they looked into past suspected cases and revised their diagnoses, suggesting that older cases were also included in yesterday’s numbers.
China had been praised by the WHO for its transparent handling of the outbreak, in contrast to the way it concealed the extent of the deadly SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003.
However, Beijing has been facing skepticism among the global public, with many fearing that there might be similarities to the way it dealt with SARS.
Authorities in Hubei have been accused of concealing the gravity of the outbreak.
Criticism intensified after the death of a doctor who had in December last year tried to raise the alarm about the outbreak, but was silenced by authorities.
Hubei’s new counting methodology might be a legitimate attempt to be more transparent, analysts said, but the immediate effects were to sow more distrust.
“Oddly, this now is a moment of greater transparency,” Williams College political science professor Sam Crane said in Massachusetts.
“It is not clear if the problem up to now, on this issue, was lack of transparency or simply bad medical practice,” Crane said.
Australian National University China researcher Jiang Yun (姜雲) said that the new methodology might be a “practical measure,” because Hubei has a shortage of laboratory testing kits.
“I don’t think the numbers are necessarily manipulated for political purposes, but the numbers themselves may not be so trustworthy,” Yun told reporters.
The leaders of Hubei and Wuhan were fired yesterday, the highest-profile political casualties of the crisis. Hubei’s two top health officials were fired earlier this week.
Shanghai mayor Ying Yong (應勇) took over the top provincial post, while an official from eastern Shandong Province was appointed in Wuhan.
Both are seen as “Xi’s men,” Lowy Institute senior fellow Richard McGregor said.
“I guess if the situation in Hubei is a long way from being under control, the party should be worried about instability, because you are literally going to have tens of millions of people confined indoors at least for another month,” McGregor said.
“I think if you are trying to deal with an emergency, you probably want to choose people you can rely on, who are loyal to you,” he added.
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