Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing on February 10, 2020. Photo: Liu Bin / Xinhua via AFP / Getty

With so much still unknown about how many people are spreading the Covid-19 coronavirus without showing symptoms, and with testing for infection lagging, we are all understandably looking for figures we can rely on to help gauge the spread of the pandemic within our communities.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) is one popular source, but its figures on confirmed cases (more than 3.5 million worldwide) are understandably conservative, given that the more you test, the more positive cases arise.  

More indicative of the trajectory of the disease are the number of deaths, which are estimated at some 250,000 worldwide. However, since many deaths due to Covid-19 occur outside a hospital, and many have died without being diagnosed with Covid-19, many nations, including Italy, Spain, the UK and the US, have struggled to obtain true mortality numbers.  

To get a more accurate picture of how Covid-19 is killing people, Western media have begun examining excess deaths, or the number of deaths exceeding normal levels during the pandemic, compared with the same period in previous years. 

The New York Times reported in March its analysis showing at least 46,000 excess deaths in 14 countries, while a Financial Times analysis showed excess death tolls of 122,000 in 14 countries – some 60% higher than official estimates. While many countries struggle to compile accurate figures on the spread of Covid-19, other authoritarian countries are loath to admit the extent the disease has penetrated their populace. 

Official numbers from China

One such authoritarian country is China. Despite having most of the earliest cases, the official numbers from Beijing are significantly lower than those of smaller countries. The latest figures from Beijing report some 84,000 confirmed cases and 4,643 deaths, after an additional 1,290 deaths (a nearly 50% increase) were attributed to Covid-19 in Wuhan in mid-April because of “belated, missed and mistaken reporting.”  

The revised figures still leave China with one of the lowest numbers of deaths (3) per million population, compared with Italy (485), Spain (548) and the US (218). Keep in mind that before the lockdown of Wuhan in late January, some 5 million residents left the city for Spring Festival, many returning to their home towns. Yet despite the outflow of domestic travelers, some 84% of all deaths in China are attributed to Wuhan.   

Inability to trust or verify

The seemingly low numbers quoted above have led many nations, including Australia, France, Germany, Iran, the UK and the US, to question the official numbers from Beijing.  Americans, whose government was admittedly slow to react to news of the outbreak, are particularly perplexed why the US, which now accounts for some 27% of all deaths, despite having only some 4% of the world population.  

But getting accurate figures from authoritarian and opaque nations such as China has long been difficult. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has a history of manipulating figures – during the Great Leap Forward under Chairman Mao Zedong, local and provincial leaders were under immense pressure to meet ill-advised production targets or face the wrath of Mao, and rosy reporting led to the deaths of tens of millions. 

In 2007, Vice-Premier Li Keqiang famously admitted to looking at other variables to gauge gross domestic product (GDP), such as electricity consumption, rail cargo volume, and bank lending. 

Under Chairman Xi Jinping, the CPC seemingly continues to manipulate figures during the pandemic, reporting an unemployment rate in March of 5.9% – called into question by one Chinese securities brokerage that was forced to retract its report of 20.5% unemployment

In the early weeks of the pandemic, China’s health authorities also sought to tamp down the growth of confirmed cases by extracting from the count those with asymptomatic symptoms – despite their ability to pass the virus on to others. China is now including those testing positive but with no symptoms in the case count, but without reliable testing numbers, it is hard to say what percentage of the population is walking around either pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic or how widespread the coronavirus is among the Chinese people.   

With respect to the recent 50% upward revision of the death toll in China, the latest revision by Beijing may be seen as an attempt to address international concerns over China’s improbably low case fatality rate (CFR).

Responding to accounts on social media over the number of people dying at home without being tested, Caixin and other Chinese media outlets published reports from Wuhan of funeral homes ordering thousands of urns more than the official death tally of 4,643, with some estimates exceeding 40,000 based on crematorium cremation capacities.

No doubt compiling accurate data is a challenge for any government, including China, Italy, Spain, the UK and the US, but when considering figures we should remember to weigh the different levels of transparency from each source country. Given Beijing’s strong distaste for transparency, reputation for manipulating figures, and a penchant for cracking down on criticism, when referring to China’s official figures, caveats should always be applied to explain why numbers may be inaccurate. 

All of us are anxious for this virus to peak and dissipate ahead of the development of a vaccine. But no government should be creating a false sense of security and reopening the economy based on inaccurate information. Doing so before the spread of the virus recedes is irresponsible and may only lead to a second wave of infections.  

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei. Twitter@ForeignDevil666