HONG KONG—As of noon on Tuesday, the official coronavirus death toll passed a milestone, topping 1,000 after 97 people died on Sunday and 108 on Monday—the highest daily counts so far. Globally, more than 42,700 have been infected, though virologists around the world and doctors in Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, believe those numbers are in fact much higher. And now, the government has quietly adjusted definitions to reduce the recorded casualties.
Information about the virus’ spread now is restricted even more than it was in January, because the Chinese Communist Party is in a race to repair its image, particularly after the death of a whistleblower doctor who attempted to warn the public after the first batch of patients sought treatment, only to be arrested and threatened by police in Wuhan.
On Monday, President Xi Jinping finally made a public appearance—not in Wuhan, but in the capital, Beijing. State-run television broadcasters ran footage of him wearing a light blue face mask, surveying conditions at a hospital, and even having his body temperature measured.
In late January, Xi called the novel coronavirus, officially known as 2019-nCoV, a “demon virus.” Last week, he declared a “people’s war” on it, saying, “The whole country has responded with all its strength to respond with the most thorough and strict prevention and control measures.”
Indeed, the government has mobilized many resources for containment and treatment. The party has sent more than 10,000 medical workers, including military doctors, to Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital, and where the population has been hit hardest by the virus. And the government has burned through $4.5 billion of the $10 billion that was allocated to handle the outbreak.
Over the weekend, the number of newly confirmed infections was the lowest yet—so, just by looking at the official numbers, those resources appeared to have had an impact on containing the sickness.
However, the reduced numbers were based on the Chinese National Health Commission’s modified definition of what a “confirmed case” is: Since last Friday, patients who weren’t showing pneumonia symptoms even if they tested positive as carriers of 2019-nCoV no longer count as “confirmed” in China. The commission’s definition runs counter to the World Health Organization’s guidance for verifying the disease’s presence—and plain common sense.
After the decree, at least four provinces—Heilongjiang, Shanxi, Zhejiang, and Hubei—reduced their recorded number of sick people.
The fudged numbers have helped state media paint a picture that the Chinese government is finally managing to control the outbreak, though what’s happening on the ground tells us otherwise.
Two hospitals have been built from scratch in a matter of days in Wuhan, meant to add 2,300 bed spaces—yet on Saturday, only about 320 beds were ready. The city’s convention center has been converted to warehouse patients, though no partitions are in place to prevent cross-contamination. Several tertiary education institutions are being retrofitted for the same purpose, with students’ belongings tossed out of dorms.
And in Shanghai, a new treatment facility is being built, just like the two in Wuhan. In Hangzhou, where the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is headquartered, ration cards have been issued to households to limit the frequency of people leaving their homes. Officials in some cities have ordered pharmacies to stop selling fever and cough medications in order to draw out potentially infected people.
With thousands of new cases being recorded each day—and many more remaining off the books—medical workers across the country just can’t keep up with screening and treatment. Many families across China have simply hunkered down at home, hoping that self-quarantine and a steady supply of medicine from pharmacies will be enough for recovery. However, in some cases this strategy has led to entire households becoming infected.
There are worries that the same thing could happen in the new treatment facilities, and we are already seeing such a situation play out off the coast of Japan.
The 3,711 passengers of the Diamond Princess have been confined to their cabins near a port of Yokohama, south of Tokyo, since Feb. 4. Japanese authorities placed the ship under a two-week quarantine because a passenger who already disembarked had been diagnosed with 2019-nCoV. By Monday evening, the number of confirmed infections on the ship had risen to 136, nearly doubling from the day prior.
And in the United Kingdom, there are worries that a super-spreader—an individual who is disproportionately likely to infect the people they encounter—has emerged. A British man who attended a conference in Singapore contracted the virus, then traveled to a ski resort in France, where he infected four adults and a child. All of them then traveled back to the U.K.
The U.K. Department of Health called the coronavirus a “serious and imminent threat” to public health.
These cases illustrate how easy it is for 2019-nCoV to travel across borders when its carriers do not appear to be ill.
Back in China, people who are venting their frustrations are being blocked from social media, their accounts suspended. One lawyer turned citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi, who arrived in Wuhan on the last passenger train entering the city in January before it was locked down, disappeared five days ago. His posts on Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms have provided close looks at conditions all over the city. Chen’s family says he is in “forced quarantine,” though he doesn’t have access to his phone.
Chen previously ran afoul of Chinese authorities when he traveled to Hong Kong last year to cover the anti-government and anti-Communist Party protests in the city.
Appearing on Face the Nation on Sunday, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, was asked about the disappearance of Chen. The ambassador simply said, “I’m sorry, I have not heard of this guy.”
The WHO is dispatching a team of medical experts to China, led by its assistant director-general, Bruce Aylward. On Sunday, Ambassador Cui praised the WHO for its involvement on the ground in China, underscoring how the party can gel with international organizations.
Meanwhile, Chinese government leaders overseeing the response to the outbreak issued this directive over the weekend: “Round up everyone who needs to be rounded up. No delay will be tolerated.” It’s meant to define the struggles to quarantine people who may become sick, but the language is ominous.