Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, just revised its death toll up by 1,290 to 3,869—an increase of 50% from its previous count.
Chinese authorities explained the revision by noting that some hospitals were overwhelmed early in the outbreak, leading to cases being incorrectly reported, delayed, or omitted. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported yesterday (link in Chinese) that the government was revising the numbers in accordance with the law, and quoted the special government operation team overseeing epidemic containment efforts in Wuhan as saying: “Coronavirus figures not only concern people’s health and lives, but also the credibility of the government. The revision of the figures not only protects citizens’ rights… it also shows the government’s respect for each individual.”
The total case count in Wuhan went up by 325, to 50,333, a 0.65% increase.
Many people, including Wuhan residents, have long been skeptical of the city’s low official death toll. Evidence of government cover-ups is rife, from the silencing of initial whistleblowers to the revelation that state leaders hushed up the crisis for at least six crucial days, so distrust of official tallies runs deep. Extrapolating from their experiences of long lines at city hospitals and being turned away when seeking medical care, Wuhan residents have spoken openly about their belief that the real case count and the death toll must be higher than currently reported. Some have also pointed to long lines at funeral homes, crematoriums operating overtime, and the thousands of urns being received by funeral facilities, as clues that the real death toll is much higher.
Taking into account Wuhan’s revisions (link in Chinese), the national Covid-19 death toll for China now stands at 4,632, out of a total of 86,629 confirmed cases.
Addressing the media today, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian—who has peddled the conspiracy theory that US troops brought the coronavirus to China—said that revising the number of confirmed cases and fatalities is standard international practice, and that Wuhan’s updated numbers “reflects an open, transparent and realistic attitude.” He added that “there has never been any cover-up; nor was a cover-up ever allowed.”
Wuhan lifted its weeks-long lockdown last week, signalling the return of at least a modicum of normality to the hard-hit city. But as grim GDP figures released today can attest, the country’s road to recovery will be long, particularly as it battles to stave off a potential second wave of infections.
Research by scientists at the University of Hong Kong has tracked China’s changing definitions of what counts as a case of Covid-19. The case definitions became broader and more flexible over time, leading to an increase in the proportion of infections that were detected. The researchers found that had a later case definition been used earlier in the epidemic, there would have been more than four times as many confirmed cases than officially reported by late February.
This story was updated to include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ comments.