Ex­perts ques­tion China’s nar­ra­tive of vic­tory in Wuhan

The Washington Post - - THE CORONAVIRU­S PANDEMIC - BY EMILY RAUHALA [email protected]­post.com

China is win­ning its “peo­ple’s war” against the coro­n­avirus. That’s the mes­sage be­ing sent by Chi­nese lead­ers and diplo­mats and am­pli­fied by the Com­mu­nist Party-con­trolled press.

A cen­tral part of the nar­ra­tive is that Wuhan, the one­time cen­ter of the out­break and the site of a re­cent visit from Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping, has stopped trans­mis­sion in its tracks. It went five days with­out re­port­ing new, lo­cal cases. On Mon­day, Wuhan re­ported one new case.

In a country emerg­ing from a crush­ing lock­down — and a world look­ing for answers — lower case counts ap­pear to be gen­uinely good news. Other coun­tries have closely watched the cri­sis in Wuhan for lessons on how best to con­trol lo­cal out­breaks.

But Wuhan’s near-zero count is be­ing called into ques­tion by in­de­pen­dent re­port­ing and re­ceived with sus­pi­cion from ex­perts. It un­der­scores wider is­sues across China. The country’s over­all coro­n­avirus num­bers have been met with some skep­ti­cism since the first signs of cri­sis.

Sep­a­rate re­ports from Chi­nese, Ja­panese and Hong Kong me­dia sug­gest the dearth of new cases in Wuhan may re­flect a dip in test­ing. Pub­lic health ex­perts also note that China does not in­clude con­firmed asymp­to­matic cases in its fig­ures — a po­ten­tial blind spot.

These gaps are par­tic­u­larly wor­ry­ing be­cause as of Wed­nes­day, tens of mil­lions of res­i­dents of Hubei prov­ince are able to move around for the first time in months. Though Wuhan, the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, will re­main in lock­down, some fear an­other wave of cases could be pos­si­ble as peo­ple start to travel into and around the Chi­nese heart­land.

“Zero cases, in this case, has more of a sym­bolic mean­ing,” said Yanzhong Huang, a se­nior fel­low for global health at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

“It is telling peo­ple, ‘every­thing is safe, it is time to go back to work, it is time for busi­ness to go back to nor­mal.’ ” He con­tin­ued, “To show the out­side world how ef­fec­tive the Chi­nese ap­proach is and how it can pro­vide a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to Western ap­proaches.”

But even China’s premier, Li Ke­qiang, warned lo­cal gov­ern­ments Mon­day not to “cover up” re­port­ing on the coro­n­avirus “for the sake of keep­ing new case num­bers at zero.”

China’s lock­down of Wuhan and much Hubei prov­ince was un­prece­dented. Flights and trains were stopped, pub­lic trans­porta­tion was sus­pended and businesses were shut­tered — not for days, or weeks, but for two months.

Though China’s meth­ods in­cluded dra­co­nian tac­tics, such as lock­ing peo­ple in their apart­ments and in­ten­sive sur­veil­lance, the world is look­ing to Hubei to see what might work.

It is clear that the sit­u­a­tion in Wuhan has im­proved dra­mat­i­cally.

Re­port­ing from Wuhan in late Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary showed des­per­ately over­bur­dened hos­pi­tals where doc­tors were col­laps­ing and pa­tients were be­ing treated in cor­ri­dors.

On March 10, more than two months af­ter the lock­down started, Xi vis­ited the city, a sig­nal to lo­cal of­fi­cials that or­di­nary life should soon re­sume. The next week, Wuhan re­ported zero new cases for the first time since the out­break be­gan.

But in­de­pen­dent re­port­ing has tested the claim. A March 23 re­port from Caixin, a Chi­nese out­let that has done ground­break­ing cov­er­age of the cri­sis, found that the virus may still be spread­ing in the city.

“There are still a few or a dozen asymp­to­matic peo­ple ev­ery day,” an uniden­ti­fied of­fi­cial at the Chi­nese Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion was quoted by Caixin as say­ing. “It can’t be de­ter­mined whether trans­mis­sion has been com­pletely cut off.”

China, un­like other coun­tries, only counts pa­tients with both a pos­i­tive test and symp­toms, mean­ing some­one who is tested and is con­firmed to have the virus but re­mains asymp­to­matic may be sta­tis­ti­cally in­vis­i­ble.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morn­ing Post re­ported that it saw clas­si­fied Chi­nese gov­ern­ment data sug­gest­ing more than 43,000 peo­ple in China had tested pos­i­tive for the virus by the end of Fe­bru­ary with­out show­ing symp­toms. If that fig­ure is true, about a third of China’s cases were asymp­to­matic — a type of case that re­searchers around the world are still des­per­ately try­ing to un­der­stand.

There are ques­tions, too, about the rate of test­ing. An­other Hong Kong news out­let, RTHK, talked to peo­ple in Wuhan who claimed they were be­ing de­nied test­ing in an at­tempt to keep case counts low.

Ja­pan’s Ky­odo News Ser­vice quoted an un­named Wuhan doc­tor as say­ing test­ing was be­ing sus­pended in the wake of Xi’s visit to shore up the premise that the bat­tle has been won.

The Wash­ing­ton Post has not in­de­pen­dently con­firmed these ac­counts, but the strate­gies they de­scribe — keep­ing case counts low, with­hold­ing data — are con­sis­tent with ear­lier ef­forts.

A Post ac­count of the early days of the out­break in Wuhan showed how se­crecy and cen­sor­ship fu­eled the virus’s spread across China and around the world.

China is strug­gling to “find a bal­ance be­tween fighting the virus and killing the econ­omy,” said Dali Yang, an ex­pert on Chi­nese pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Chicago.

As Wuhan looks ahead to the end of its lock­down on April 8, au­thor­i­ties will need to step up test­ing, not re­duce it, said Jen­nifer Nuzzo, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist and se­nior scholar at the Johns Hop­kins Cen­ter for Health Se­cu­rity.

“It is crit­i­cally im­por­tant to main­tain vig­i­lance,” she said. “Now is not the time to de­clare vic­tory.”


Em­ploy­ees eat their lunch while stay­ing two me­ters away from each other at the Dongfeng Feng­shen plant in Wuhan, China, on Tues­day. Wuhan re­cently al­lowed au­tomak­ers in the city to re­sume work.

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