Coronavirus Outbreak in China 10 Times Worse than Reported?

By Simone Gao
Simone Gao
Simone Gao
February 19, 2020Updated: February 20, 2020

Narration: China’s state-run media has been giving constant updates and a lot of coverage on the Coronavirus epidemic. But they all take the same tone.

Anonymous patient: First, I want to thank the Party and the government. Then I want to thank the doctors and nurses at the Second People’s Hospital of Chenzhou.

Anonymous patient: We are confident in winning this war. We will most certainly win.”

Narration: Social media however, depicts a very different picture.

Anonymous patient at a makeshift hospital: So far there are still no bathrooms, nor doctors here.

Social media post: Three corpses have been lying here all morning.

Funeral home worker: The amount of body we transport and cremate are 4-5 times as usual. I received a total of 127 corpses yesterday. Don’t believe that f**ing s** of b** officer!

Simone Gao: Do you take into consideration that the official number from the Chinese CDC might be severely understated?

Title: Coronavirus Outbreak in China 10 Times Worse than Reported?

Host: Welcome to Zooming In, I am Simone Gao. On Feb. 12, Hubei health authorities announced an additional 14,840 cases of the coronavirus. It marks the largest single-day rise since the epidemic began and is almost 10 times the number of added cases from the day before. Health authorities said the spike was due to the inclusion of “clinically diagnosed cases” in Hubei. Others suspect the true reason is because of a recent change in top leadership in Hubei province and Wuhan city, as these two Xi Jinping appointees seek to avoid taking responsibility for their predecessors’ incompetence and concealment of the epidemic. To decode these events, Zooming In did a thorough case study of one of China’s most popular media outlet’s coverage of the coronavirus epidemic. We also did a preliminary calculation of the infected population and death toll in Wuhan based on an exclusive investigation by the Epoch Media Group into one of Wuhan’s funeral homes. From there, we will explore the truth of the epidemic, how Chinese leadership view it, their plan going forward and most importantly, what it means for you if the epidemic in China is 10 times worse than reported.

Part One: 100 Percent Positive Coverage from State-Run Media

Narration: China’s central propaganda department said on Tuesday that it would dispatch more than 300 journalists to Hubei province and Wuhan to report on the disease.

The decision came on the heels of a meeting chaired by Chinese communist party leader Xi Jinping held earlier this week, amid mounting public anger from social media at the government’s handling of the crisis. During the meeting, Xi emphasized the importance of enhancing the regime’s control over online media.

He directed that “the media should tell moving stories of how people on the front line are fighting the virus to showcase the unity of the Chinese people.”

China’s state-run news media started extensive campaigns immediately after Xi’s remarks.

On February 4, Hunan Television, one of China’s most popular cable TV channels, aired a 2-hour live broadcast with updates on the coronavirus epidemic. Spanned across 30 or so segments, the reports all take the same tone. We give you a condensed version of what essentially that narrative is:

Hunan Television Host: China’s National Health Commission released the latest update on the coronavirus: The number of recovered patients rose to 262.

4955 patients were recently discharged from medical observation. No new reported deaths.

Thanks to scientifically effective treatment, three patients in Loudi province have recovered.

Loudi’s second medical zone was constructed in only three days.

At the National Health Commission Press Conference, experts addressed how much time it would take for a hospitalized patient to recover.

Hunan Daily’s op-ed wrote an article on “Fighting For a Grand Victory Over The Epidemic”.

Wuhan Huoshenshan Hospital is officially accepting the first batch of confirmed patients. Hospital officials claimed four main goals: Maximum recovery rate, minimum death rate, zero infection rate among medical staff, zero complaint rate from patients.

Wuhan pledges to pick up all four types of patients all across Hubei.

Wuhan rushes to build 13 Fangcang makeshift hospitals to house patients with minor symptoms.

New bedding and electric blankets are provided at Hongshan Stadium Makeshift Hospital.

Life science and coronavirus research team member Chen Yu returns to Wuhan to help study the virus.

Second patient to recover from coronavirus in Chenzhou.

Patient: “First, I want to thank the Party and the government. Second, I want to thank the doctors and nurses at the hospital.”

Hunan Television Host: Another Four Patients Discharged From Hospitals In Huaihua.

Another Patient Discharged From Hospital After Recovery.

Governor Xu Dazhe Holds Phone Calls with Two Hunan Medical Aid Teams in Hubei.

Xu expects the medical teams to implement the spirit of President Xi’s important speeches and instructions; all Party members in the medical teams should have the vanguard and exemplary roles, to accomplish the decisions and arrangements entrusted by the central government.

Young Nurse writes to her grandfather, “I am doing what a Party member should do.”

Chenxi County pledges, “Support Wuhan, Fight For The Country.”

It’s like joining the army. If the Party needs you, you must step forward.

Hunan pharmaceutical manufacturers resume work to guarantee speedy and steady supply.

Xiangdi Technology rushes back to work, produces 20 automated nucleic acid extraction instruments per day.

In Changsha Province, vegetable supply is more than enough – 8000 tons of transactions per day!

A vegetable supply logistics center worker in Changsha says, “Despite high demand due to the virus outbreak, market prices remain relatively stable.”

Governor Du Jiahao visited railway stations to review their work, “As long as we follow President Xi’s lead and guidance from the central government, victory will be ours.”

Hunan Wangwang Hospital offers homemade disinfectant to neighborhoods for free.

Host: Also interspersed throughout the report were music videos eulogizing good deeds under the guidance of the Party. Western audiences might find it ridiculous, but sadly, this has become a social norm in China whenever the government tries to deal with a public crisis. But is the propaganda effective? I asked microbiologist and China expert Dr. Lin Xiaoxu.

Ms. Gao: Do you think the Chinese government has been very effective in shaping public opinion?

Lin Xiaoxu: I think actually that public opinion was heavily influenced…shaped by the Chinese government’s propaganda tactics because to the Chinese government, it’s very clear even from Xi Jinping’s directive, It’s very clear that the government puts propaganda purpose on top of rescuing people and the Chinese government controls all of the media resources. So when people are being quarantined down at home or in hospitals, if all they watch is just the government’s official tone or the so called positive energy, then more people become delusional.

Bumper: Coming up, social media tells a completely different story of Wuhan. The real death toll might be 8-10 times higher than the official number.

Part Two: Social Media Depicts a Different Picture

Host: While we do not attempt to undermine any efforts of the medical staff working on the frontline, it is worth questioning what Chinese state-run media do not address and why. In fact, in contrast to China’s official media, social media outside China–that Chinese people have to circumvent the firewall to use–depicts a very different picture. We selected the most credible ones with clear visuals that are self-explanatory.

Narration: The Huoshenshan hospital is one of two massive hospitals China has built to treat confirmed coronavirus patients with severe symptoms. According to China’s official media, it is well equipped and patient friendly.

But a construction worker’s video reveals a different story; one that CCTV footage doesn’t show. Every room has a tiny window for food delivery. Iron railings are installed on all windows. Doors can only be opened from the outside. People in the rooms cannot leave. The camera person proclaimed: this is not a hospital, it is a concentration camp.

Narration: Fang Cang hospitals are the massive quarantine centers in Wuhan. Patients there showed grievous footage of the center.

Host: The Wuhan government released a notice about quarantining “four types of people,” which are people confirmed to have coronavirus; those suspected to have the virus; people with fevers who can’t be ruled out for having the virus; and those who have had close contact with people with confirmed cases. The way and the extent the Chinese authorities enforce the quarantine measures are appalling.

Narration: In some communities, local officials ordered the lockdown of infected people’s homes. That is, to seal their doors and windows so they can’t get out.

Host: Another type of video circulating on social media is footage of dead bodies in hospitals and dead bodies being taken away. The underlying question is if we see death everywhere, does that mean the death toll might be much higher than we know?

According to a video posted on social media, 3 corpses have been lying there the whole morning. Some of these people died in the early morning. Nobody took care of it as of now. Doctors and nurses all work in this environment. This is the reality of designated hospitals. No one is in charge.

Host: The most alarming evidence is a phone call Epoch Media Group’s undercover investigators made to one of the crematoriums in Wuhan on February 4. The conversation shows a simple yet heart wrenching fact: the math simply doesn’t add up. The actual number of bodies being cremated doesn’t match the government figure by a large margin. Here is the highlight of that phone call.

The Funeral Home Worker: We now pick up and cremate 4 to 5 times as many bodies as usual every day since January 23… A few days ago I worked out a statistic. 38% of corpses we picked up were from hospitals, and 61% died at home… These unscrupulous officials in Wuhan have made a mess of managing the city!

Host: The Investigator called the funeral home again shortly afterwards and got this figure.

The Funeral Home Worker: I received a total of 127 corpses yesterdays, cremated 116. There were 8 confirmed coronavirus cases among those I picked up, based on their death certificates.

Narration: According to China’s official records, 131 people are expected to die in Wuhan every day. Wuhan has 7 funeral homes, and they can cremate 135 bodies daily on average.   Based on this information, Zooming In did a preliminary calculation. We concluded that since Jan 25, 2020, when the funeral worker said the number of bodies arriving at the funeral home started to rise, roughly 470 people died of coronavirus every day in Wuhan. From Jan 25 to Feb 12, over 8000 people could have died from the disease in the city.

On Feb. 12, the Epoch Times reported that funeral service teams from multiple provinces were going to Wuhan to help transport and cremate corpses. These teams held ceremonies before leaving, where they held up banners that indicated where they were from and what their mission was in Wuhan.

Host: At a Center for Disease Control and Prevention press briefing at the National Press Club in Washington DC on Feb 11, I asked CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat these questions.

Ms. Gao: I’m Simone Gao, from Zooming in at NTD TV. As some of the people have already touched upon this, but I just want to dig a little deeper. So when cities see make assessment of the epidemic, does it take into consideration that the official number from the Chinese CDC might still be very severely underestimated? Because for example, the Chinese medical officials admitted that medical personnel admitted that the diagnostic kits they need to use to test it, that the patients are very limited, only 10% of what they actually needed. And also we did an interview with the, one of the funeral homes in Wuhan city two days ago and they said they have been absolutely overwhelmed and they’ve been basically working 24/7 in 60% of the bodies they cremate are actually from home, 30% from hospitals. Obviously those 60% of the bodies are not counted in our official number.

So that’s one question. I mean, is it still severely underestimated? And, and question number two is regarding the quarantine center in China we know China has this policy right now. If you have a symptom, it doesn’t matter if you get a flu or anything else, a coronavirus you get you are forced to those quarantine centers. We have seen footage of thisFancang quarantine center with 1000 beds, like very close to each other. So my question is whether those were actually increased the possibility of cross infection or is it an effective way to control the, the spread of the epidemic. Thank you.

Anne Schuchat: Yeah, thanks. Those are both really, really important questions. We absolutely assume that the reported cases are an underestimate. The, the early exportation of virus to a number of countries was used by mathematical modelers to estimate what what the total cases must be. The, you know, if we knew of 41 cases, but this many countries we’re seeing cases among imported among travelers using the known numbers that travel. There were some estimates of under reporting and you know, it’s a mix of not, not hiding cases but really trying to keep up either with the mild cases or as you say now that the disease is so common that the the laboratory capacity can’t keep up or the kits aren’t, you know, there’s not available kit. So we absolutely assume there’s a much greater number of cases and China’s actually reporting what they call suspected cases, ones that haven’t yet been tested.

And then that’s typically know how we, how we assess outbreaks and in emerging infections. Your question about the quarantine center, theoretically a quarantine center should be people who have no symptoms, who are being observed to see because you think they’re higher risk than others because they’ve been exposed. You want to observe them and that the first sign of symptoms, you want to move them out of exposure to anyone else so that they can be isolated. The concern about putting people who may be ill together could be a problem in terms of acquiring the infection. You know, people who go in for something else like influenza or measles, and then come down with the novel coronavirus. So that’s why the circumstances of isolation are so critical. You know, it’s one of the reasons I believe that China built those hospitals with individual rooms so that they could keep people they knew were sick separate from others and, and safely care for them. But the ability to surge for a very large scale outbreak can be challenging for anyone.

Host: I also asked Dr. Lin Xiaoxu what it means for the rest of the world if the coronavirus epidemic in China is actually much worse than the Chinese authorities lead us to believe.

Dr. Lin: So that’s why, from this simple calculation, we can tell the situation is at least 10 times worse than the government exposed to the world. So that’s why we really worry about the situation in Wuhan. And because this disease is already spreading to so many countries, people always worry that it will turn into a full blown pandemic. So right now outside China, we didn’t see any country have a major, cluster case outbreak. It’s only smaller, community groups or individual cases. So that’s why the WHO didn’t call it a pandemic yet, but it definitely has this potential to develop into a full blown pandemic, especially if the Chinese government conceals information. And we know more than…probably 10 times more people got infected (than reported). So definitely more people are still being infected. More people can travel to different places inside China and more people maybe even go to other countries. So that’s why this data shows that the potential for this outbreak to develop into a full blown pandemic is much higher than the world knows.

Ms. Gao: But this is in China. Even if the situation is much worse than we know, would it post imminent danger to the rest of the world, considering Wuhan and Hubei provinces are basically locked down and many countries have implemented travel bans for Chinese nationals?

Dr. Lin: Yeah. I think the whole world’s should care about this situation very seriously. I think actually the whole world needs to be very cautious about this outbreak. Because in many countries that border with China, for example, Vietnam, Turkestan and even Afghanistan…many of these countries, they don’t have a good public health system. So many of the countries around the world, not like the United States or UK or other well established, well developed countries…those countries, if you’ve got some people infected…imported a case from China, then it’s a whole big disaster for the region. So, even for Latin America, so many Chinese people may travel to Latin America or Africa for example…Cairo has one of the biggest airports that will receive many Chinese people and many of these countries did not completely close down their airlines flying in and out of China, right? So that’s why it’s still a huge risk for the whole world. If any of the developing countries got a severe cluster case that happened in their country for this Wuhan novel coronavirus infection, in these countries, It could quickly turn into an epidemic and it could spread in a very uncontrollable fashion.

Ms. Gao: As far as I know, the Chinese authorities have not allowed U.S. officials to go with the WHO staff into China to investigate the epidemic. Why do you think they won’t allow U.S. experts to go?

Dr. Lin: I think fundamentally because Chinese still regard the public health crisis as a state secret and they still think that the top priority for the Chinese communist party is to keep the so-called social stabilities. So they keep broadcasting these, you know, they call it “positive energies” telling the word, telling Chinese people that they are doing great, they can lock down the city, they can build hospitals in 10 days. So many positive measures they’ve taken to contain the station, but they don’t want the whole world to know how much people suffer in this kind of quarantined down situations. Are there any loopholes in the prevention measures? Are there any loopholes in their supply for people in the self quarantine situations and how many people die due to the humanitarian disaster that the government created? And they may not want the whole world to know the true origin of this virus. So there are many questions regarding these many issues. Maybe the Chinese didn’t want the whole world to know that’s why they keep rejecting the US infectious disease experts or disease prevention experts to go into China to investigate the situation. But I think the whole world should actually demand (with stronger will) to conduct independent investigation or at least in a joint investigation.

Ms. Gao: Why do they allow other experts from WHO into China?

Dr. Lin: That’s because the WHO is basically a political organization and even though it serves a public health purpose, it’s leadership has a close tie with the Chinese government and also its mandate only asks the WHO to work with the government agency, or the government entity that they recognize. Even in Syria in such a civil war situation, the WHO can only work with the Assad regime, they cannot work with the rebel group. And so in the WHO’s operation when they can work with the Chinese government they cannot work with Taiwanese people (for example). So that’s why…it’s a political organization. They cannot criticize the Chinese government. So when they do their investigation in China, of course the Chinese government’s opinion or Chinese government’s position will heavily influence what they can tell the world.

Bumper: Coming up, the Chinese New Year holiday has ended. Xi Jinping forced businesses to open. Could that cause a second wave of the outbreak?

Part Three: A Second Outbreak?

Narration: China’s extended New Year’s holiday officially ended on Feb 10. The 174 million migrant workers from rural regions were supposed to go back to work at that time. But the coronavirus epidemic has stymied domestic travel. Buses, trains and planes are still severely restricted. Migrant workers have been asked to quarantine themselves for 14 days after they return. Most companies that can function with staff working remotely have told employees to work from home.

The whole country is still partially shut down. However, one person is not happy with the situation.

According to Reuters, after reviewing reports on the outbreak from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and other economic departments, Xi told local officials during a Feb 3 meeting of the Politburo’s Standing Committee that some of the actions taken to contain the virus are harming the economy. He urged them to refrain from “more restrictive measures.”

Local authorities outside Wuhan – where the virus is thought to have first taken hold – have shut down schools and factories, sealed off roads and railways, banned public events and even locked down residential compounds. Xi said some of those steps have not been practical and have sown fear among the public, according to two people familiar with the meeting.

Host: Xi is obviously worried about the economy. The Politburo Standing Committee stressed the importance of keeping people employed and strengthening policies to support small and medium businesses. But will sending a big portion of the population back to work cause a second wave of the outbreak? Here is what Lin Xiaoxu has to say.

Dr. Lin: Yes, I am seriously concerned that this might trigger another wave of outbreak inside China. One reason, (there is) the report by Dr. Zhong Nanshan, the leading expert of disease prevention in China. In this report he mentioned, among 1000 people infected with this novel coronavirus, the mean age range for these patients is actually only 47 years old. So that means a lot of the young people, they actually got infected. This is very different from the seasonal flu, where usually you see it’s senior people that got infected, right? So that means a lot of young people became infected with this virus. So for people who go back to work, the majority of those people are within the age range of 25 years old to 60 years old. So they can easily become infected by the virus.

That’s why it’s a huge concern. And if the Chinese government, under economic pressure, has to let people back to work, at least they should have additional measures to help people prevent the infection. But right now, many of the regions, under political pressure, under the government order, have to resume… (people have to go) back to work. That’s why it’s very worrisome. And many people don’t even have enough supplies of masks. So how do you prevent another outbreak in other cities in China? So I’m worried a lot about this decision.

Host: The coronavirus epidemic has not yet shown any sign of winding down. A recent survey conducted by Tsinghua University concluded that about 85 percent of small to medium sized Chinese companies can survive for only three months if they can’t resume work due to the epidemic. Will China’s economy crash? Will China be hit with a second round of the outbreak? Or will both or neither of them happen? Stay tuned, Zooming In brings you insights into the epidemic you can’t find anywhere else. I am Simone Gao. Thanks for watching and see you next time.