In news that will surprise no one but will doubtlessly draw a sharp rebuke from Beijing assuming it’s communicated to the public by the Trump administration, the US intelligence community told the White House last week that China is (or at least was) engaged in a coverup related to the country’s COVID-19 outbreak.
That’s according to a trio of officials who spoke to Bloomberg.
Anecdotal evidence (assuming you want to call urn counts “anecdotal”) as well as common sense has long dictated that Beijing likely wasn’t telling the whole truth with regard to how many infections and deaths the country suffered at the hands of the coronavirus which, by most accounts, originated in a wet market in Wuhan.
A classified report delivered to the White House last week calls China’s reporting “intentionally incomplete”, the unnamed officials told Bloomberg, without providing details. Two of those sources did say the report “concludes that China’s numbers are fake”.
You’ll note that New York now has far more cases than Hubei, the original epicenter of the outbreak, if you go by China’s official count.
The US as a whole has more than double the total number of infections reported by Beijing.
Indeed, if you believe China’s official figures and trust the current trajectory (China’s curve has flattened almost completely), it’s likely that China will fall out of the top-five list when it comes to total cases.
To some, that seems somewhat implausible, considering the sheer number of people in China compared to, for example, Italy and Spain, which each have more than 100,000 confirmed cases and account for around half of the world’s deaths from the virus.
China famously changed its methodology for reporting cases on multiple occasions during the worst days of its own epidemic and only this week revealed what it says is reliable data on asymptomatic cases, which total just ~1,500.
As Bloomberg notes in the same piece (and I’m not going to get too far into this, as “Chinese urn counting” isn’t really my purview), “stacks of thousands of urns outside funeral homes in Hubei province have driven public doubt in Beijing’s reporting”.
Of course, as mentioned above, you don’t need to count urns to doubt China’s reporting. All you need is a rudimentary understanding of the country’s political system and some experience with how they report economic data.
The question has never been so much whether China underreported virus cases and deaths, but rather by how much, as that could have ramifications for how the rest of the world prepared for the eventual spread. That’s something Deborah Birx mentioned Tuesday.
“The medical community interpreted the Chinese data as ‘This is serious, but smaller than anyone expected'”, she told reporters at the daily coronavirus briefing. “I think probably we were missing a significant amount of the data [given] what we see happened to Italy and Spain”.
Obviously, China isn’t alone in being suspected of undercounting, but it is most assuredly in a league of its own when it comes to the possible scope of that undercounting, and thereby with respect to its responsibility to the global community.
You can expect Chinese officials to be particularly sensitive about this and to lash out at the US should the Trump administration decide to publicly (and formally) accuse the country of leaving the world unprepared for one of the worst epidemics in modern history.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, North Korea still has no confirmed cases.
As laughable as that is, it could actually be some semblance of true. After all, if you don’t have the capacity to test for something, then you can say it’s not “confirmed”.