Covid-19: how honest is China?

US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Beijing claims that since the end of last year, the coronavirus pandemic began, only 82,919 cases and 4,633 deaths have been reported in mainland China. This data can be quite accurate, and in this case, a detailed report will be an important tool in studying how the virus spreads.

However, it is also possible that the figures that China has provided to other countries are greatly underestimated compared to the real figures that Beijing prefers to keep secret. The impenetrability and distrust of strangers, characteristic of the Chinese Communist Party system, make it difficult to give an objective assessment. However, if we gain access to more coronavirus information available to Chinese officials, this will be invaluable assistance to many governments.

The Coronavirus Infection and Death Database, compiled by the China Defense Forces Science and Technology University and falling into the hands of Foreign Policy reporters, sheds light on how Beijing collected data on the spread of coronavirus infection among Chinese.

The source of this leak, who asked to keep his name a secret because he does not have the right to disclose such information, said that these data were collected by the university.

In addition, the university created a special service for tracking the spread of coronavirus: the data in the online version are consistent with the information received through the leakage channels, but they are much less detailed, since the online version has only an incidence map without details.

This dataset, although it contains some inconsistencies – and although it may not be so exhaustive as to refute official figures published by Beijing – is the most extensive coronavirus infection database in China.

More importantly, this dataset can provide a valuable source of information for epidemiologists and public health experts around the world – and almost certainly, Beijing has not shared this data with US officials and doctors. (The World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to our requests for comment.)

Although these data cannot be called exhaustive, a lot of valuable information can be gleaned from them. They reflected more than 640 thousand cases of updating information covering 230 cities, in other words, more than 640 thousand lines, which indicated the number of cases in a particular city for the period of time when this data was collected. Each such update contained information on the extent, duration and number of “confirmed” cases of infection in a city, and these data cover the period from early February to the end of April of the current year.

Data on locations located at or around the outbreak epicenter in Wuhan City of Hubei Province also include the number of deaths and the number of those who “recovered”. It remains unclear what exactly the compilers of this database meant by “confirmed” cases and cases of “recovery”. As in many other countries, experts in China adjusted their case counting methods, which became apparent in mid-February when Hubei reported a sharp surge in incidence due to the fact that patients were diagnosed with covid-19 based on computed tomography. Unlike other countries, the epidemic in China began even before effective testing methods became widely available, and the Communist Party often manipulated data to achieve its political goals.

The data that fell into the hands of foreign policy reporters includes information on the location of hospitals, as well as the names of various places that coincide with the names of residential complexes, hotels, supermarkets, railway stations, restaurants and schools throughout the country. For example, this database reports one case of coronavirus infection in a KFC restaurant in Zhenjiang in eastern China, which was recorded on March 14, as well as two cases of infection in Harbin Church in the north-east of the country, recorded on March 17. (This database does not contain the names of those who became infected or died from the coronavirus, and the reports of infections or deaths contained in this database cannot be independently verified.)

It remains unclear exactly how the university collected this data. The online version says that they received information from the Ministry of Health of China, from the Public Health Commission, from press reports and other public sources. According to information on the university’s official website, which is located in the city of Changsha in central China, it is “directly subordinate to the Central Military Council of the PRC,” the body that oversees the country’s armed forces. The armed forces played an important role in the fight against the spread of the virus: they helped to ensure compliance with quarantine measures, deliver all necessary supplies and treat patients. The propaganda slogan published on the official website of the Chinese Armed Forces states:

The person who appears to be responsible for creating this database is Zhang Haisu, director of the university’s department of information and communication. In its May press release, the university credits Zhang with the fact that it was he who created the “database that helped fight the virus and return to work, and appreciates his dedication.” A note on the site of the coronavirus distribution tracking service says the following: “At present, our country is taking decisive measures, and the epidemiological situation is tightly controlled.” Zhang Haysu’s email address is also published on the site. We did not receive a response to our request sent to this address. University representatives also did not respond to our request for comment.

The Foreign Policy publication and the 100Reporters organization, which also published this material, decided not to make this database publicly available for security reasons, but we are considering the possibility of transmitting this data to researchers studying the distribution of coronavirus.

For their popular coronavirus distribution tracking service, Johns Hopkins University is leveraging China data for DXY, a Chinese medical platform that collects information on morbidity in the country. But DXY provides information only at the provincial level. More detailed information could greatly help scientists, as well as ordinary citizens who would like to learn more about how this disease spreads to other countries. The trends reflected in these data could enhance our knowledge about this disease, as well as how Beijing manipulates numbers. In mid-April, medical research experts expressed skepticism after the Wuhan authorities reviewed the data on the number of deaths, increasing their number from 2579 to 3869, which is almost 50%.

Why is Beijing restricting access to coronavirus distribution data? Perhaps because of a hostile attitude or distrust of the United States, because now the tension in their relations has reached a very high level. In addition, it is possible that Beijing is afraid that experts from other countries will learn about its large-scale attempts to hide the truth, as this will refute the idea that authoritarian regimes such as China are better equipped to protect their peoples from a pandemic. Even the public version of the database of the Defense Scientific and Technical University of the PLA from time to time blocks access from American IP addresses. To gain access to the university’s website, where the map was published, one of the authors of this article was forced to use a virtual secure network, pretending to be located in Uruguay.


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