During the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in China, Chinese officials presented lower caseload data to the world than officials knew was real, according to a new report.
Official documents show that on Feb. 10, when China reported 2,478 new confirmed coronavirus cases, Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak, actually reported 5,918 new cases, CNN reported. The network said it was given access to 117 pages of leaked documents from the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention that cover the period between October 2019 and April.
“It was clear they did make mistakes — and not just mistakes that happen when you’re dealing with a novel virus — also bureaucratic and politically-motivated errors in how they handled it,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“These had global consequences,” he added.
According to CNN, the documents “reveal what appears to be an inflexible health care system constrained by top-down bureaucracy and rigid procedures that were ill-equipped to deal with the emerging crisis. At several critical moments in the early phase of the pandemic, the documents show evidence of clear missteps and point to a pattern of institutional failings.”
The documents show that the totals the world was given did not match reality.
On Feb. 17, the internal leaked documents said 196 people died in Hubei Province. Officials that day reported there were 93 deaths due to the virus.
The world was told that as of March 7, the total death toll in Hubei was 2,986. The number from the internal documents was 3,456.
Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, said “global perceptions” impacted how the numbers were managed.
“They were still hoping it was like 2003, and like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome would be eventually contained, and everything can go back to normal,” Yang said.
The leaked documents indicate that about 200 coronavirus cases had been diagnosed in late 2019, but China publicly said on Jan. 3 that it only had 44 cases of the disease that would later become known as the coronavirus.
William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, said the numbers “would have been presented in a different way had U.S. epidemiologists been there to assist.”
Chinese officials “seemed actually to minimize the impact of the epidemic at any moment in time. To include patients who were suspected of having the infection obviously would have expanded the size of outbreak and would have given, I think, a truer appreciation of the nature of the infection and its size,” he said.
Andrew Mertha, director of the China Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, said hiding the true numbers could have been done to mask local and regional shortcomings in the public health system.
Mertha said the number-juggling “appeared to be a deception, for unsurprising reasons.”
“China had an image to protect internationally, and lower-ranking officials had a clear incentive to under-report — or to show their superiors that they were under-reporting — to outside eyes,” he said.
The documents also revealed a massive spike in flu cases in late 2019 in Hubei, which reported a 2,059 percent increase in flu cases from the year before. In the first week of December, more than 10,000 cases were reported in the cities of Yichang, Xianning and Wuhan. Wuhan later would become the hardest-city city when the coronavirus took hold in China.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.