China’s official death toll for coronavirus has come under further scrutiny after reports said that 5,000 urns had been distributed to a single funeral home in Wuhan alone, suggesting the real number of deaths in the city could be far higher than the official toll of 2,535.
Wuhan has been under lockdown since the coronavirus pandemic first emerged in the city in January. However, Chinese officials announced this week that the lockdown would be partially lifted after it reported no new cases of coronavirus in the city, in line with its broader claims that coronavirus has peaked in China and is now largely under control.
But this narrative is increasingly being questioned by observers who have challenged the way China reports its numbers and suggested officials have downplayed the number of deaths in the country.
The latest accusation is based on reports that urns used to contain people’s ashes after cremation had been delivered and distributed in far larger numbers than expected from the official death toll in Wuhan.
According to a report by Chinese-language media outlet Caixin, which was picked up by Bloomberg and the Shanghaiist, the Hankou Mortuary has distributed urns at a rate of 500 per day and will continue to do so until April 4.
“Wuhan has seven other mortuaries. If they are all sticking to the same schedule, this adds up to more than 40,000 urns being distributed in the city over the next 10 days,” concluded the Shangaiist.
Photographs from the Hankou Mortuary also showed mass numbers of urns being stockpiled and delivered. According to Caixin, at least 5,000 urns were distributed to Hankou over two days. One photograph in the Caixin report shows the arrival of 2,500 urns, while another reportedly shows a stockpile of 3,500.
An image reportedly showing 3,500 urns at Hankou Mortuary. (Caixin)
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While it is unclear how many of these urns have been distributed, Caixin reported lines of up to five hours to collect an urn from Hankou. It is also unclear whether other mortuaries have been distributing urns, but the numbers from Hankou alone suggest that the mortuary has far more urns than would be needed to accommodate for the officially reported 2,535 dead.
However, a lot remains unknown about the deliveries, which may not be directly linked to deaths from coronavirus and could be for people who have died in the past or as a precaution for future deaths.
The reports which calculated that 40,000 urns could have been distributed are also based on the assumption that all eight of Wuhan’s mortuaries are distributing urns at an equal rate or even at all, which may not be the case.
Bloomberg reported that six of the eight people who answered the phone at Wuhan’s other mortuaries were unable to comment, while the other two did not answer.
A medical staff attends to a baby with novel coronavirus at the Wuhan Children’s Hospital, in Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak, in Hubei province, China on March 6, 2020. (Reuters)
Doubt over the way China reports numbers
This latest report builds into wider doubts over how China reports the numbers of coronavirus cases.
Chinese officials have been accused of covering up the initial outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan during the crucial period in which the virus could have been contained.
China only initiated a lockdown in Wuhan on January 23, seven weeks after the first appearance of the virus, a delay which critics have argued reflected a prioritization of silencing critics over preventing the spread of the virus.
“In suppressing information about the virus, doing little to contain it, and allowing it to spread unchecked in the crucial early days and weeks, the regime imperiled not only its own country and its own citizens but also the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks,” wrote Shadi Hamid in The Atlantic.
Observers have also questioned the way China has reported the number of cases of coronavirus.
Neil Ferguson, a professor of epidemiology at the UK’s Imperial College London, said in a video in February that the official figures for confirmed cases in Wuhan might only account for as few as 1 in 19 infections because only the most severe cases were diagnosed.
“We think probably 10 percent or less of current infections are being detected at the current time,” said Ferguson.
Most recently, The Epoch Times – a newspaper opposed to the ruling Communist Party of China – suggested that a drop of 21 million cellphone users in China over the past months may indicate a far higher death toll than the official number.
Part of the skepticism stems from China announcing dramatic shifts in numbers after revising the way it counts cases, which it has done multiple times.
On February 14, Hubei province announced a surge of 14,000 cases following a change in how cases were classified, only for the number to drop dramatically on February 20 when authorities revoked the changes.
The shift came after President Xi Jinping took a more active role in combating the virus, prompting critics to suggest that the death toll had become politicized.
China’s management of the coronavirus has become a source of political contention internationally, with Chinese and US officials engaging in a war of words over whether China was responsible for the virus and how it handled the initial outbreak.
Chinese state media and officials embarked on a disinformation campaign to falsely accuse the United States of introducing the virus to China, prompting US President Donald Trump to refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.”
Writing in Foreign policy magazine this week, China experts David Gitter, Sandy Lu and Brock Erdhal explained the Chinese policy:
“By permanently, or even temporarily, injecting doubt into the origins of the coronavirus through this question, Beijing hopes to escape blame for its initial cover-up of the outbreak in December and January, which cost the world precious time to rally resources and create a potentially successful containment strategy.”