The real situation on the ground in China is being called into question following allegations that cover-ups by authorities have again become endemic in Wuhan, the central Chinese mega-city where the highly infectious novel coronavirus first cropped up at the end of last year.
Chinese state media has been cranking up its coverage of Wuhan progressing towards full recovery as the city-wide lockdown there is expected to be lifted on April 8, with no fresh infections reported for several days in a row.
But news filtered through from the city this week that those who tested positive for the virus but were asymptomatic were never included in China’s official tally of confirmed cases in the past few months. It has been alleged that in February alone, numerous infected people displaying no symptoms were not counted as patients, and their number could be as high as 43,000.
It has also been reported that China’s health authority updated its guidelines for treating Covid-19 infections at the end of January, when the pandemic began to tear through the nation. The new rules governing tests and categorization of suspected and confirmed patients stated that “covert cases” – people who had a positive result in nucleic acid tests but were without symptoms – should not be included in the daily report of fresh cases. It is also likely that many mild cases have gone unreported.
Citing what they claimed as figures from official memos and papers by scientists pending peer review, the South China Morning Post and Radio Television Hong Kong all reported that there were about 43,000 such Covid-19 patients with no telltale signs of infections or ailments by the end of last month.
The total number of people coming down with the respiratory disease in China would have otherwise reached 120,000 if they were included. Some said these people would just be put under home quarantine with slack oversight for self-observation and be allowed to go if their situation did not worsen after 14 days.
The above estimate is by a group of researchers from Harvard, the Wuhan-based Tongji Hospital and Fudan University in Shanghai.
There has long been lingering incredulity among overseas experts about the official figures from China, especially after the nation pronounced earlier this month that the once-raging plague had been largely “vanquished.”
The act of excluding asymptomatic patients again smacks of rampant underreporting by cadres at local and national levels, which has already been blamed for the botched response to the emerging outbreak in Wuhan at the end of last year, when cover-ups and belated measures backfired.
Local officials in Wuhan once sought to assure panicked residents that there was no proof of human-to-human transmission until mid-January, when an expert panel dispatched by the National Health Commission argued otherwise and sounded the alarm.
There are posts circulating on WeChat and Weibo attributed to residents in Wuhan, saying some people suspecting they had contracted the virus with obvious symptoms were turned away by hospitals in the city because local cadres did not want the infection figures to rise further.
Many helpless people waiting to be tested said it was “not medical, but political treatment.” There have also been reports about many discharged patients testing positive again.
These posts, however, are difficult to substantiate since the city is still sealed off, with most overseas reporters being denied entry. Wuhan has shut all its temporary hospitals in requisitioned venues that used to treat patients triaged as stable now that the epidemic continues to lull, yet in a contradictory move, the city has asked doctors and nurses dispatched by other provinces to postpone their pull-out plans.
Professor David Hui, head of Department of Medicine and Therapeutics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an authority on respiratory and infectious diseases, told Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily that studies showed infected people not displaying any prodromes or with very mild discomfort and those in their incubation period could still pass germs to others and that the spread of the virus in mainland China could have been grossly underestimated.
His fear is that risks can be lurking in the shadows with the lifting of travel and party bans across China, especially when Wuhan resumes traffic and business next month. Chinese papers say Wuhan’s airport will be reopened to domestic flights and high-speed trains to Shanghai, Guangzhou and other cities will also start running.