Report from Beijing: numbers worse than official count, social media widely censored

As the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to unfold here in China, I have been glued to my cellphone for updates every waking hour. Many valuable posts and video clips get deleted only a few hours after being released online, so people have to make screen shots in order to retweet them and avoid intensifying censorship.

Both Chinese social media posts and established press reports give every reason to believe that the real number of confirmed cases is far bigger than the official release now, especially in Wuhan and Hubei, the most infected zone in China.

According to a first-hand report by correspondent in Wuhan of Caijing, a local hospital designated to treat the virus, on Feb 1st and 2nd, around 120 patients with fever visited the outpatient, among which around 80 had lung infections, however, only 5 out of the 80 patients could be hospitalized.

In another designated hospital, there were 600 hospitalized patients in critical condition, but none of them was diagnosed with the novel corona virus pneumonia due to the absence of test strips. The doctor interviewed had no idea why they lacked of test strips.

Using the numbers above, it seems only 6% of infected people were included in the official stats. In addition, according to the data released by the Japanese and Korean media, around 2% of the population during the evacuation of nationals in Hubei province got infected. Of course, in the official release there are 4,109 confirmed cases in Wuhan and 9,074 in the whole Hubei province. But if we go by the estimate above, the real infected number is likely to reach 70,000 in Wuhan, and 200,000 in Hubei.

Cries for help on social media

The idea that the real number of the infected is dramatically higher than the official count has been backed by posts on social media. There are many Wuhan and Hubei citizens who have posted to call for help for their infected family members, because they were pushed back and forth from one hospital to another with high fever and infected lungs for days while already having been diagnosed as suspected.

One video clip I saw showed the body of a suspected sick man rejected by the hospital. It is said that he jumped from an overpass in Wuhan in despair because if he went back home, he may pass the virus to more family members.

There were also posts about pedestrians collapsing on the street in Wuhan, and dead bodies evacuated from residential apartments.

Under one hashtag on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, there are so far 1066 posts of infected individuals asking for help, and those posts get deleted constantly. In another individual account of an opinion leader on Weibo, there are also hundreds of posts crying for help from Hubei.

Critical medical supplies are scarce

The medical supplies and resources in Wuhan have been tight, but in other cities and counties of Hubei province such as Huang Gang, Xiang Yang, and many other obscure counties outside of the spotlight, the situation has gotten even worse.

Despite relief supplies pouring into Hubei constantly, doctors and hospitals are still reporting shortages of supplies on social media. Through the efforts of social media, it has been discovered the local Wuhan Red Cross Center embezzled and hoarded most donations since it is almost the only official donation channel mandated by the government. This embezzlement created a nationwide stir and criticism online. Under the pressure from public outcry, viewers on both public and private media platforms started monitoring the relief efforts of the Wuhan Red Cross Center, accelerating the relief speed.

One of the two new medical facilities dedicated to treat the infected patients was ready to receive patients on Feb 2nd, with 700-1000 beds available, however there may still be a wide gap between the demand and the supply.

The government just announced a mandatory and more aggressive quarantine measure to remove all close contacts of the infected and suspected out of their home to “designated facilities” to avoid cross-infection, as the infection is still spreading fervently in Wuhan. There are already tweets on Weibo that there are not enough treatment and medicine in those designated facilities, so we’ll keep a close watch and wait for more confirmed news.

The situation is improving a bit in other majors cities in China. For example, Beijing delayed the start of working day again to February the 9th from February the 2nd. The government mandates that from Feb 2-9th, employees should work at home. Several major Chinese tech companies extend the date going back to office till the end of February. However, migrant workers have started returning to the city since the end of January, in a batch by batch fashion. So far these quarantine measures have been effective, and the number of confirmed case has decreased in the past two days in Beijing.