Virus lie that duped the world
It would be nice to know what lies ahead. But our epidemiologists may have to reset their expectations: A secret US report says we can't trust China's word on what happened in Wuhan.
Beijing has presented its Wuhan pandemic response as a beacon of hope.
Act fast. Act forcefully. And everything will be OK.
And the numbers appear to prove it: The number of new infections has fallen dramatically. COVID-19 deaths are relatively few and far between.
Look at the Wuhan line on this new graph from @jburnmurdoch. The lockdown was introduced there on 23rd Jan – 69 days ago – which means this entire Wuhan curve has happened since then. It shows how long it can take to see the effect of control measures on the number of deaths. pic.twitter.com/MAsBIzFevj— Adam Kucharski (@AdamJKucharski) April 1, 2020
But for months now epidemiologists around the world have been commenting on the unusual nature of the figures coming out of China. They were too neat. Too tidy. Too textbook.
As is being demonstrated across the world, epidemic curves actually contain lots of jagged jinks as actions and reactions come into play.
It was cause for suspicion.
Now it's a cause for real concern.
US intelligence agencies submitted a classified report to the White House last week in which they concluded the death and infection toll of the outbreak in China is being deliberately under-reported.
PATHFINDER OR DECEIVER?
The speed at which Beijing brought the Wuhan outbreak under control was roundly admired and applauded. It was a feather-in-the-cap for authoritarianism, enabling extreme measures to keep people locked up in their homes while the virus burnt out for lack of fresh hosts.
It achieved this within 60 days of imposing widespread, massive lockdowns.
Or did it?
Italy's infection rate has levelled out, but is yet to fall. The suffering in Spain continues to spread. US numbers are skyrocketing.
Even when taking into account the point at which social distancing and more severe lockdown measures were imposed, Italy's experience is not matching China's.
What's gone wrong?
Three US intelligence officials have spoken out about a secret assessment of China's behaviour, but have requested news agencies not reveal their identities. It reportedly bluntly concludes the infection and death tolls are "lies".
The Beijing-approved tally stands about 82,000 cases and 3300 deaths since the outbreak was discovered in December.
US President Donald Trump, fresh from a phone call to Chairman Xi Jinping, last week hinted he had seen the damning report.
"Their numbers seem to be a little bit on the light side, and I'm being nice when I say that," he told a White House press briefing Thursday.
It's not easy to check.
Beijing last month expelled many foreign journalists. Its borders are now closed in what is a purported effort to stop the virus returning.
And, now, international affairs commentators are noticing a massive misinformation campaign being flung at the world in an effort to rewrite history.
"In the last few weeks, the CCP (Communist Party of China) has stepped up its propaganda efforts to shape the narrative with respect to COVID-19, both within China and internationally," China Policy Centre director Adam Ni says.
"In essence, the party wants to make the best out of a terrible situation and spin the story in favour of the party by deflecting blame, sowing doubts on its culpability, whipping up nationalism, and highlighting the superiority of the Chinese party-state."
LIES, DAMNED LIES AND STATISTICS
US State Department immunologist Deborah Birx said yesterday China's reported numbers influenced expectations the world over about the nature of the virus.
"The medical community interpreted the Chinese data as: This was serious, but smaller than anyone expected," she told reporters. "Because I think probably we were missing a significant amount of the data, now that what we see happened to Italy and see what happened to Spain."
It's not just US White House advisers taking aim at Beijing's credibility.
中国是不是真把新冠疫情控制住了，不能看这些地方官员为了GDP做的表演，要看今年两会什么时候开。百姓死活可以不管，官员的健康还是重要的。 pic.twitter.com/TOCRs6Fe3S— 方舟子 (@fangshimin) March 23, 2020
Over the weekend, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's advisers asserted China's figures were probably downplayed by a factor of 40.
That means the 82,000 cases of infection admitted to may actually have been closer to 3.3 million. When applied to the 3300 deaths, that number becomes 132,000.
"There is a disgusting disinformation campaign going on and it is unacceptable. They (the Chinese government) know they have got this badly wrong and rather than owning it they are spreading lies," the Daily Mail reports an anonymous source from No.10 Downing St as saying.
Beijing is keen to paint a picture of business as usual. Announcements are streaming out, declaring the reopening of subway lines, bus routes and trains across the country.
But footage of stacks of funeral urns piled up outside crematoriums in China's Hubei province have raised suspicions about Beijing's doctrine of information control.
And despite repeated claims of next to no new internally generated cases, reports are appearing that Chinese cinemas and shopping centres are once again closing down just weeks after being ordered to reopen.
The temptation to fudge the numbers of death is also being seen in Italy and Spain. Both are being accused of attempting to use procedural hurdles - such as whether or not an autopsy has been conducted - to reduce their demoralising official death tolls.
Source - World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins, other media
VOICES OF DISSENT
US politicians, stung by internal criticism at their own poor response, have been harsh in their criticism of China's behaviour.
"The claim that the United States has more coronavirus deaths than China is false," Nebraska senator Ben Sasse said in a statement. "Without commenting on any classified information, this much is painfully obvious: The Chinese Communist Party has lied, is lying, and will continue to lie about coronavirus to protect the regime."
A: We have written letters to these media and urge them to abandon their arrogance and prejudice, take an objective view of China's efforts and achievements in combating #COVID19, and contribute positive energy to global public health and safety, instead of doing the opposite. pic.twitter.com/vKdRt6KH0X— Liu Xiaoming (@AmbLiuXiaoMing) April 1, 2020
The spokesperson for China's Foreign Affairs Ministry has rejected all criticism of Beijing's reporting.
"The think tanks are funded by US gov, military and intelligence agencies," the official Twitter account states. "The 'reports' are drafted with anti-China ideology and based on dubious materials. They are made up from interviews with questionable sources. Isn't this the formula for fake news?"
But things aren't so great in the land of the free, either.
Information management is again at play.
A Washington emergency doctor was fired at the weekend for telling local media about shortages in equipment and protective clothing. A Chicago nurse was fired for saying she wanted a better quality mask. A New York health agency has formally warned its staff they will be fired if they talk to the media.
"Hospitals are muzzling nurses and other healthcare workers in an attempt to preserve their image," a Washington State Nurses Association spokesperson said. "It is outrageous."
But such attempts to muzzle such politically and commercially damaging news have largely failed.
And voices of dissent can still be heard within China itself.
"Even the generation of retirees who were once so loyal to the party don't believe this nonsense," one Wuhan blogger recently wrote. "China is trying to prove to the West that it now has zero infections. But it is no more than a slogan."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
Originally published as COVID-19 lie that duped the world