Death toll soars as China changescounting methods

People wearing protective facemasks shop for meat at a market in Shanghai on February 14, 2020. - The death toll from the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic neared 1,400 on February 14, as the United States complained of a "lack of transparency" from Beijing over its handling of a crisis that has fuelled global panic.
People wearing protective facemasks shop for meat at a market in Shanghai on February 14, 2020. - The death toll from the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic neared 1,400 on February 14, as the United States complained of a "lack of transparency" from Beijing over its handling of a crisis that has fuelled global panic.
Image: NOEL CELIS

China’s official death toll from the new coronavirus spiked dramatically on Thursday after authorities changed their counting methods, fuelling concern the epidemic is far worse than being reported.

As the figures soared in China, a troubling new front opened abroad as neighbouring Vietnam placed 10,000 people under quarantine after six COVID-19 cases were discovered in a cluster of villages — the first such lockdown overseas.

Under criticism at home over the handling of the crisis, China’s Communist Party sacked two top-ranking officials in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.

The developments came hours after President Xi Jinping claimed “positive results” from efforts to contain an epidemic that has now officially killed 1,367 people and infected nearly 60,000.

But the World Health Organisation warned it was too soon to declare victory.

“I think it’s way too early to try to predict the beginning, the middle or the end of this epidemic right now,” Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, said.

In Hubei and its capital Wuhan, where tens of millions of people are trapped as part of an unprecedented quarantine effort, 242 new deaths were reported yesterday.

Another 14,840 people were confirmed to be infected in Hubei alone, with the new cases and deaths by far the biggest one-day increases since the crisis began.

Outside Hubei, there were 12 more deaths but new cases fell for a ninth day in a row, with 312 extra patients.

Hubei authorities said the increases were because they had broadened their definition for infection to include people “clinically diagnosed” via lung imaging.

Up until now, they had documented cases using a more sophisticated laboratory test.

Health officials said they looked into past suspected cases and revised their diagnoses, suggesting older cases were also included in Thursday’s numbers.

China had been praised by the WHO for its transparent handling of the outbreak, in contrast to the way it concealed the extent of the deadly SARS virus epidemic in 2002-2003.

But it has faced continued scepticism among the global public.

Analysts said Hubei’s new counting methodology might be a legitimate attempt to be more transparent.

“I don’t think the numbers are necessarily manipulated for political purposes but the numbers themselves may not be so trustworthy,” Yun Jiang, a China researcher at Australian National University, said.

The leaders of Hubei and Wuhan were sacked yesterday and Hubei’s two top health officials were fired earlier this week.

In Vietnam, authorities announced they were locking down the commune of Son Loi, about 40km  from Hanoi, for 20 days.

Checkpoints were set up around the commune and health officials wearing protective suits sprayed disinfectant on vehicles.

The biggest cluster of cases outside China is on a cruise ship quarantined off Japan’s coast, where 44 more people tested positive for COVID-19, raising the total number of infections on the Diamond Princess to 218.

Hundreds of people in about two dozen countries are infected.

The outbreak has wreaked havoc with global events, with the World Mobile Congress in Spain cancelled and the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens tournament and Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai postponed. — AFP

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