As the United States and much of the rest of the world locks down over the novel coronavirus pandemic, China is cautiously opening back up.
Travel restrictions in place across most of the country are gradually being relaxed, and next week people will be allowed to leave Wuhan — where the virus was first detected late last year — for the first time in more than two months.
But as China appears to be turning a page on the virus, new questions are being raised about how much the numbers being reported can be trusted, and whether the worst of the outbreak has truly passed.
That was a suggestion Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying angrily refuted Thursday, saying the country “has been giving open, transarent and timely updates to the world.”
“On international public health security, we should listen to World Health Organization and experts on epidemiology and disease control rather than several politicians who are habitual liars,” she said. “In fact, just yesterday, a senior WHO official refuted unwarranted accusations on ‘China’s untransparent data’ in a press conference in Geneva.”
She accused officials in the US of trying to “shift the blame” due to the “severe situation” that country is facing.
“It is immoral and inhumane to politicize public health, which should be condemned by all in the US and beyond,” Hua added. “I hope they will lose no more time and focus instead on fighting the pandemic and saving American lives.”
It’s not only the US which is raising questions, however. Caixin, a leading Chinese business publication, previously reported that there were thousands more funeral urns delivered to Wuhan than would be accounted for by the official coronavirus death toll. However, funeral services in the city of 11 million were halted on January 25, so its plausible that urns are also used for those who died from something other than coronavirus.
And CNN’s early reporting — inside Wuhan back in January — also suggested the numbers were not adding up when compared with stories from the front lines.
In part, this discrepancy may be because of something that many countries are struggling with, a shortage of tests.
Dora Jiang, whose family are in Wuhan, said it took four days for her uncle to get tested.
“It’s really difficult. And it’s really emotional for me,” she said. “I don’t think it’s because they really want to control numbers, but I think it’s more about the capacity.”
Kyle Hui said his mother died in mid-January in Wuhan, but “never had a nucleic acid test” which could have found evidence of the coronavirus.
“Her cause of death was officially listed as severe pneumonia,” he said. “But during her treatment, the doctor said it was very likely that she had coronavirus.”
That meant she was not a confirmed case, and therefore is not counted in the official numbers.
Chinese officials have always refuted any suggestion that their data is not accurate. They also heavily stress the country’s recovery rate, pointing out that of about 82,000 reportedly infected in China, some 76,000 have survived the illness.
But their case has not been helped by multiple changes to how the numbers are tabulated. Just this week, after some pressure, health officials began releasing data on “asymptomatic cases.”
Many people who are infected by the illness do not necessarily know they have it, but can still potentially spread the virus to others.
This has led to fears of a potential second wave of infections in China, as people resume traveling around the country and attempt to get back to work.
The authorities last week introduced strict new limits on foreigners arriving in the country, in order to prevent just a second wave, but if those who are skeptical of the official numbers are correct, the true danger may be in the country already.
By CNN‘s David Culver | Sarah Faidell, Isaac Yee, Shanshan Wang and James Griffiths contributed reporting.