China reported its fifth consecutive day with no new domestic coronavirus infections on Monday, and authorities announced plans to lift travel restrictions on tens of millions of people who have been living in lockdown for the last two months.
But the truth is that China does have new coronavirus cases — it’s just not reporting them. And its claims of victory over the epidemic are being disputed by its own residents and by public health experts.
Unlike other countries — and against World Health Organization (WHO) guidance — China does not report a positive test result if the patient is showing no symptoms. It also fails to report how many people fall into this category, raising concerns that its claims of victory are premature.
The WHO continues to report dozens of new cases in China, but Beijing labels these as imported cases of people returning to China and prefers to play up its lack of new domestic cases instead.
“It’s not possible at the moment to tell if transmission has stopped,” a member of the infectious disease prevention and control team in Wuhan, where the outbreak began, told Chinese outlet Caixin on Monday.
The official said that more than a dozen new cases are being found in Wuhan every day, thanks to contact tracing and screening of those who continued to work during the lockdown.
However, widespread testing of the general population is not happening in Wuhan, leading many to suspect that the number of positive asymptomatic cases in Wuhan is much greater than even health officials know about.
Residents have also told Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK that patients have been turned away from hospitals without getting tested because Wuhan authorities were under orders to meet the desire for no new cases.
Underlining the fact that infections have not been eradicated in China, local health officials in Wuhan admitted on Tuesday that a doctor at the Hubei Provincial People's Hospital had tested positive for coronavirus.
China has reported over 80,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus to the WHO since the outbreak began in December, but by the end of February, when the outbreak was at its peak in the country, more than 43,000 people tested positive without showing symptoms, according to documents seen by the South China Morning Post. It is still unclear what role asymptomatic transmission is playing in the global pandemic, and these cases were not included in official figures.
But China is eager to emerge from a months-long lockdown that has crippled its economy and to rewrite the narrative around a pandemic that has killed more than 17,000 people so far.
From midnight on Wednesday, millions of residents in Hubei province, the origin point of the pandemic, will be allowed to travel outside of their cities for the first time since January 23. Wuhan will remain closed to entry and exit, but from April 8 the city’s residents will be able to leave their homes.
Social media posts from residents of Wuhan questioned whether Beijing was suppressing the number of “silent carriers,” and raised concerns that opening the region up again could cause a new spike in infections.
“I am really worried that there are still many asymptomatic infected people inside Wuhan. As soon as everyone goes back to work, everyone will be infected,” Wang, 26, who lives in the city, told the Guardian.
A frontline volunteer in Wuhan wrote an essay questioning the official statistics. The essay labeled the reporting of no new cases “propaganda” and said it’s a dangerous precedent to set. One commenter added: “Any rational person would doubt these figures.”
Cover: A masked worker walks on a bridge the construction over Han River in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (FeatureChina via AP Images)