According to official statistics, China has defeated the coronavirus. Over the last five days, health authorities have reported only one new locally transmitted case of Covid-19 – a patient in Guangdong province infected by someone travelling from abroad. In Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak and the country’s worst-hit area, officials on Monday reported a fifth day without new cases.
The figures are a sharp drop from just a month ago when recording a daily increase of fewer than 2,000 new infections was a milestone. Authorities have begun easing Wuhan’s two-month lockdown while cities across the country are following orders to “fully restore” production and resume normal life.
But as the country returns to work, residents and analysts doubt the near-zero community transmission rate, worrying that leaders have prioritised restarting the economy over decisively containing the virus. While public health experts, as well as citizens, say the situation in China has improved dramatically – the result of aggressive testing, quarantines and social distancing – many doubt the numbers are as good as officials have reported.
“I am really worried that there are still many asymptomatic infected people inside Wuhan. As soon as everyone goes back to work, everyone will be infected,” said Wang, 26, who lives in the city. Another resident added: “I don’t believe [the numbers]. This epidemic will not disappear so easily.”
“Any rational person would doubt these figures,” one internet user wrote in response to an essay posted by a volunteer in Wuhan questioning the statistics.
According to a report on Monday by RTHK, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, residents said hospitals in Wuhan had refused to test patients who showed symptoms. Kyodo News in Japan reported at the weekend that a local doctor said the number of cases had been manipulated before President Xi Jinping’s visit earlier this month, prompting the beginning of “a mass release of infected patients”.
Allegations of new infections in Wuhan have persisted on social media to such an extent that authorities issued a detailed statement over the weekend debunking them.
Some of the concerns about China’s reporting stem from how Beijing classifies patients. While the World Health Organization and South Korea consider anyone who has tested positive for the virus as a confirmed case, China does not include asymptomatic infections in its final tally.
Late on Monday night, Wuhan’s health commission published a Q&A explaining how asymptomatic cases are dealt with. On why such cases are not included as confirmed cases, the commission said that patients were quarantined for 14 days and if they began to show symptoms they would be designated as confirmed and that data would be published.
“A small number of asymptomatic infections may progress to becoming confirmed cases, but the vast majority [of patients] will heal by themselves,” it said.
Critics also question why recovered patients who retest as positive are not counted. Data from quarantine centres in Wuhan showed that the possibility of recovered patients testing positive again was between 5% and 10%, according to the state-run Global Times. Officials in Hubei have said those patients would not be recorded as new confirmed cases because they had been counted previously.
Authorities said they had not witnessed people-to-people transmission in asymptomatic cases. However, an unnamed official at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention told the Chinese magazine Caixin: “It cannot be determined whether transmission has been completely cut off in Wuhan.” The official said there were still “a few or dozen symptomatic people every day”.
Documents seen by the South China Morning Post reportedly showed more than 43,000 people had tested positive for Covid-19 by the end of February but did not show symptoms. They have not been included in the official number of infections of more than 80,000.
Initial efforts to suppress information about the virus and continued censorship of public debate throughout the crisis have also added to mistrust of the numbers.
“With the cover-up in December and January we really cannot trust the numbers from the Chinese government without more credible and solid evidence to verify,” said Ho-fung Hung, a professor in political economy at Johns Hopkins University.
Others say it is a balancing act for the leadership. Since the beginning of this month, leaders in Beijing, including Xi, have emphasised the need to meet economic and development targets, in a year where the Chinese economy was already expected to struggle. A taskforce has been touring the country to make sure local authorities, bound by competing demands of restarting production but preventing new infections, are following orders.
“Now the leadership has put a very heavy emphasis on resuming economic activity,” said Victor Shih, a politics professor at the University of California, San Diego.
“One way to resume economic activity without panic is to cover up cases while still doing the government’s best to trace and contain them,” he said. “There is a risk it will lead to another outbreak but for now that seems like a risk the government is willing to take.”
Still, sceptics of the positive statistics also acknowledge the difficulty of continuing the restrictions. Many citizens have lost months of income while others are tired of putting their lives on hold.
One internet user wrote: “Why bother with data! Wuhan’s lockdown for so long is irrational in itself. People need to live!”
Wang said: “The wheels of returning to work have begun turning and there is no way to stop them. All we can do is protect ourselves and not drop our guard.”