The World Health Organization has accused China of concealing the true picture of the pandemic situation in the country and underplaying the seriousness of the situation, according to a Reuters report from Geneva on January 5, 2023.
Quoting a senior WHO official, the report says “China’s Covid-19 data is not giving an accurate picture of the situation there and under-represents the number of hospitalizations and deaths from the disease.” According to the report, comments of the WHO officials were the clearest criticism yet of China’s recent handling of the pandemic. It underscored worries about the accuracy and availability of data from Beijing, hampering the fight against the disease.
Emergencies Director of WHO Mike Ryan was quoted as saying: “We believe the current numbers being published from China under-represent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admission, in terms of ICU admissions, particularly in terms of death.” The WHO believed that the definition of death of the Chinese government was “too narrow.” Late in December 2022, China narrowed the classification of death as Covid-related, counting only deaths caused from pneumonia caused by Covid or respiratory failure.
Since the U-turn in the definition of Covid death by the authorities Beijing, there is a discrepancy in the death figures claimed by the government and reports from the ground on the situation. Going by the new definition, the authorities have claimed five or fewer deaths in a day. But funeral homes and hospitals in China say they are overwhelmed.
This definition has met with skepticism of experts around the world. The WHO has defined Covid-related deaths as those resulting from a clinically compatible illness in a patient with a probable or confirmed infection when no other unrelated cause of death is involved.
It is not surprising that the rest of the world is not taking the claims of the Chinese authorities at face value and have clamped strict restrictions on people travelling into different countries from China, including suspension of flights and strict Covid-19 testing requirements. Among the countries which have imposed tough Covid-19 measures on travellers from China are the USA, the U.K., several other European countries, among them Germany, France and Sweden, Australia, Canada, Japan, India and South Korea. Israel, Malaysia, Morocco, Qatar and Taiwan are also among countries that have imposed restrictions on travellers from China.
Instead of appreciating the justified apprehensions of these countries, Beijing, most reprehensibly, has described these measures as politically motivated and threatened counter-measures against the countries involved. In a policy that clearly smacks of vindictiveness, Chinese embassies from January 10, 2023, stopped issuing visas to the South Koreans and the Japanese in retaliation against these countries asking Chinese visitors to undergo Covid-19 measures. The announcement on visa suspension was made In brief online notices. The notice issued by the Chinese embassy in Seoul even made it clear that the visa ban would continue till South Korea lifted its “discriminatory entry measures” against China. The ban covered tourist, business and some other visa categories.
What the notices issued by the Chinese embassies clearly failed to mention was that China was reeling under the pandemic while the rest of the world had managed to control it. There was no reason for other countries to suffer due to the idiosyncrasy of the rulers of China that they would not allow the import of more effective foreign vaccines for Covid-19 and rather depend on the ineffective Chinese vaccines.
As a retaliatory measure, South Korea has also stopped issuing short-term visas at its consulates in China for the month of January 2023, except for government activities, essential business and humanitarian reasons. A South Korean Foreign Ministry statement has said: “Our government’s step to strengthen anti-virus measures on passengers arriving from China is based on scientific and objective evidence, and we have communicated with the Chinese side in advance.”
Japan has protested against the Chinese move through diplomatic channels. Foreign Minister of Japan Yoshimasa Hayashi has said that Japan would respond appropriately while watching the outbreak in China and how much information the government shares about it. The World Health Organization and several nations, incidentally, have accused Beijing of withholding data on Covid outbreak.
Doubts have deepened even in mainland China that the Communist Party of China is covering up the Covid death toll after a number of celebrity deaths, says The Daily Telegraph, London. “A 40-year-old opera singer, a famous screenwriter and the man who had designed the Olympic mascot have all died in recent weeks, with the state-controlled media attributing some of the deaths to severe cold,” says the report. Sarcastic online comments wonder if the deaths are due to “bad flu.”
Observers say the withholding of visas for business people from South Korea or Japan could delay a revival of commercial activity and potential new investments that were being hoped for after Beijing’s abrupt lifting of anti-virus control in December 2022.
Business groups had warned earlier that global companies were shifting investment plans away from China because it was too difficult for foreign executives to visit the country under the pandemic controls. Only a handful of foreign auto and other executives have visited China over the past three years.
In an ostrich-like attitude typical of a totalitarian country, Beijng has suspended or closed the social media accounts of more than 1,000 critics of the government policies on Covid-19 outbreak. The popular Sina Weibo social media platform said on January 7, 2023, that it had addressed 12.854 violations of the norms and issued temporary or permanent bans on 1,120 accounts. Incidentally, the ostrich, a beautiful bird, buries its head in the sand and believes that no one is able to see it.
Sina Weibo said the company would “continue to increase the investigation and clean-up of all kinds of illegal contents, and create a harmonious and friendly community environment for the majority of users.” The emphasis on a harmonious and friendly environment, though difficult to understand in the context of Covid management, falls into place when read in the context of a speech by President of China Xi Jinping on the New Year’s Day where he called for unity to combat Covid-19. Observers point out that unity is important for a country to fight external aggression, but it is not clear how unity can prevent the onslaught of a deadly virus.
President Xi Jinping does not seem, however, to be a believer in the old dictum: “Doctor, heal thyself.” For, the policies of his government do not seem to promote unity in combating Covid-19; as the events in a Covid kit factory in Shanghai on January 9, 2023, revealed. Protestors clashed with the police in the factory in Chongqing producing Covid-19 antigen kits as they protested over low wages and the layoff of several workers. According to a Reuters report, videos uploaded in social media showed people throwing traffic cones, boxes and stools at the police. Protestors were also chanting: “Return our money.”
Comments have appeared in the social media, criticizing President Xi Jinping’s praise of China’s fight against Covid-19, saying China had overcome unprecedented difficulties and challenges in the battle against Covid. “What a perverse world you can only sing the praise of the fake but you cannot show the real life,” was the sarcastic comment of a social media user.
Unfortunately for China, as the year 2022 drew to a close, it became evident that the worst of the pandemic was yet to arrive in China. For, with the return of migrant workers to their native villages from jobs in big cities, Covid started spreading to the rural areas of the country. With its draconian lockdown measures, China had for the past three years kept the spread of the virus confined to the cities and towns, but the failure to vaccinate the people effectively has finally started taking its toll; with the virus wounding its way to the villages of China.
With millions of migrant workers crowding into trains and buses, leaving factory towns, construction sites and cities, and heading to their rural homes for the Lunar New Year holiday that lasts 40 days, the rural healthcare system will be overwhelmed, it is feared. The apprehension is not misplaced as hospitals in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai have buckled under the pressure of the outbreak. “What we are most apprehensive about is that after three years everyone can finally go home in the New Year to visit relatives. How to deal with the peak of infection in vast rural areas has become a huge challenge,” the New York Times News Service has quoted official of National Health Commission of China Jiao Yuhui in a report.