The big question being asked now about the spread of Covid-19 was China's transparency as the virus spread across the country. Photo: STR / AFP

Deciphering fact from fiction about the coronavirus crisis is quickly becoming as complex as the race to find a Covid-19 vaccine.

At times, unraveling China’s response to the pandemic has resembled searching for a hypodermic needle in a haystack.

Yet one compelling argument has been put forward by Derek Scissors, an academic at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington.

His conclusions are startling after questioning the “figures” released by President Xi Jinping’s government and suggesting that there could have been “tens of thousands of deaths.”

“China’s Covid-19 figures are not arithmetically sensible. The [ruling] Communist Party has deliberately made estimation difficult, but, outside of Wuhan city and Hubei province, cases are low by a factor of 100 or more,” Scissors said in a report released earlier this month and entitled Estimating the True Number of China’s Covid-19 Cases.

By April 20, official numbers showed that 82,747 people had been infected by this new strain of coronavirus with more than 4,632 deaths.

But that data has again been disputed by Scissors after the scale of the outbreak in Wuhan and the rest of Hubei was eventually revealed and a lockdown was ordered. 

‘National lockdown’

He has also pointed to figures published by the Chinese press, which quoted Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang confirming that five million people left the city before it was placed in “quarantine.” 

“In late January, Chinese media provided information about [the] migrant outflow from Wuhan before [the] quarantine. Using a lower number than theirs [1.2 million], then conservative figures for migrants’ infection rate and time in circulation before [the] national lockdown, generates an estimate of 2.9 million cases,” Scissors said. 

“This is partly due to China’s huge population. That population [of 1.39 billion] can also hide Covid-19 among tens of millions of respiratory illnesses. Along with harshly enforced censorship, the population can hide tens of thousands of deaths,” he added.

China has constantly denied that the official numbers have been manipulated. The latest announcement came last week after authorities revised the death toll in Wuhan by 50%, or 1,290, from 2,579 to 3,869. Overall, that pushed the nationwide total to 4,632.

At a media briefing on Friday, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian ruled out a “cover-up” and stressed that there had simply been a delay in reporting.

“Medical workers at some facilities might have been preoccupied with saving lives and there existed delayed reporting, underreporting or misreporting, but there has never been any cover-up and we do not allow cover-ups,” Zhao said.

Still, there have been rumblings in the corridors of political power in Washington, Paris and London as economies grind to a halt.

So far, more than 2.4 million people have been infected globally with the death toll edging close to 170,000. In Europe, Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom have been ravaged by the outbreak, while the US has reported more than 764,000 cases of infection with the death toll surging past 40,000.

“It could have been stopped in China before it started and it wasn’t. And now the whole world is suffering because of it,” US President Donald Trump said at the weekend, referring to the way Beijing handled the epidemic after the outbreak in Wuhan.

When asked about official statistics highlighting China’s 0.33 deaths per 100,000 people, he added, “the number’s impossible … it’s an impossible number to hit.”

Last week, France’s President Emmanuel Macron cast doubts about the level of transparency from Beijing. “We don’t know. There are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Skepticism has also increased in the UK about China’s response to what has turned out to be a catastrophic world event, despite praise from the World Health Organisation.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is standing in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recovers from contracting Covid-19, spelt out Britain’s position at a regular briefing

“I think there absolutely needs to be a very, very deep dive review of the lessons – including of the outbreak of the virus – and I don’t think we can flinch from that at all, it needs to be driven by the science,” he said.

“But there is no doubt we can’t have business as usual after this crisis, and we will have to ask the hard questions about how it came about,” Raab added after thanking Beijing for speeding up medical equipment sales to the UK.

Getting to the bottom of a bottomless pit might take more than a “deep dive review.” Scissors, of the American Enterprise Institute, said:

“Chinese respiratory illnesses of all kinds [during the flu season] could easily exceed 100 million, hiding 2.9 million Covid-19 cases … Or you can believe that 1.2 million travelers from ground zero [Wuhan and Hubei] of a pandemic, some freely circulating for weeks, resulted in a national contagion of little over 15,000.

“[In the end,] it is the Party’s intent that no estimate of Covid-19 can be entirely convincing.”

For now, the jury is still out on what could be the biggest cover-up in pandemic history. After all, more than half of humanity, or 4.5 billion people, are still confined to their homes.