The coronavirus threatens those who need care the most and strains networks providing help
Signs of life are returning in China after a two-month lockdown. In Chengdu, rather than being cooped up in homes, citizens can freely enter and exit apartment complexes without a temperature check. Businesses have reopened, including the city’s ubiquitous hot pot restaurants. Pastor Paul Peng of Enfu Church recently went to a restaurant to eat for the first time in months, noting he was one of only a few patrons. The owner commented that business was slow.
Enfu Church continues to meet online, yet some small groups have begun to gather again, where they can “taste a little bit of wonderful fellowship.”
In Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, shopping malls have reopened, buses and subways have started running, and by April 8, the lockdown officially will be over and healthy residents will be able to leave the city freely. Schools in some low-risk provinces have reopened as China has delayed the national college entrance exam one month to July.
Yet some wary citizens question whether restarting life—and the economy—is wise as many doubt the official numbers of infections and deaths in the country. For the past few days, the government has reported Wuhan has not seen any new cases and noted the only new infections were from those returning from abroad. Since the outbreak began in December, China claimed it had a total of 82,400 confirmed cases, 3,320 deaths, and 76,600 recoveries. In comparison, the United States reached 236,000 cases and 5,650 deaths on Thursday.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded in a classified report that China had underreported the number of infections and deaths from the virus, according to Bloomberg. For a country that often doctors official numbers to paint a rosier picture of its government, the fact that its coronavirus numbers are off is no surprise. Studies have found China’s actual gross domestic product is about 12 percent lower than its official figures, that its crime stats are wildly underreported, and its official number of voluntary organ donors is impossibly high.
Some of the underreporting may be because lower-level officials need to meet target numbers to keep their jobs or receive promotions. In addition, during the worst of Wuhan’s outbreak, people with symptoms were dying at home without getting tested because of a lack of medical capacity. Some patients died of other diseases as hospitals were overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. Until April 1, China did not count in its case numbers patients who tested positive but remained asymptomatic.
Asymptomatic patients could make up 25 percent of infected people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which explains the rapid spread of the virus. On its first day releasing the numbers, Chinese officials announced there were 130 new asymptomatic cases, and they were monitoring 1,367 asymptomatic patients.
When President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan March 10 in a “victory tour” against the virus, health officials modified the number of infection cases, a Wuhan doctor told Japan’s Kyodo News. He said officials released patients from quarantine even though they still had signs of pneumonia, and they stopped doing blood tests to detect antibodies produced during infection before releasing them. The doctor claimed “suspected patients were released back into society.”
As the official numbers of new cases in Wuhan dropped in mid-March, Cao Jingchao of Wuhan Union Hospital told Financial Times that some hospitals were starting to resume normal functions and transferring coronavirus patients to his hospital. Yet a lack of transparency—doctors aren’t given the patients’ medical charts—made them wonder if those are actually new patients.
On March 15, his hospital took in 100 patients and four days later received 20 more—although the official number of new cases that day was zero, according to FT. Cao suspects some transfers are new cases.
Locals also began questioning the official tally of 2,548 deaths in Wuhan as they saw long lines and large stacks of urns at the city’s funeral homes. Chinese media outlet Caixin reported that on March 26, relatives waited in long lines at Hankou Funeral Home to collect ashes of family members. One woman waited six hours to pick up the ashes of her father, who had died of brain cancer after the hospital sent him home to make room for coronavirus patients.
Caixin also posted a photo of a truck carrying 2,500 urns arriving at the funeral home. The truck driver said he had made a similar trip the day before. Another photo showed staff workers inside the funeral home moving 3,500 urns. Hankou is one of eight funeral homes in Wuhan, leading people to speculate the actual number of deaths from the outbreak could be many times higher than the official number.
When Bloomberg called the eight funeral homes, six responded that they either didn’t have the numbers or couldn’t share tallies. The other two did not answer calls.
Questions also linger over the actual toll of the virus in Xinjiang, where authorities have detained more than a million Uighurs in re-education camps. With reports of the camps’ close quarters and substandard hygiene, many worry that the coronavirus could spread rapidly in the camps and prisons. Information about Xinjiang is difficult to find: The government has clamped down on all communication.
The government claims the region of 24.5 million has only 76 coronavirus cases and three deaths. Schools have resumed, factories are back in production, and construction sites buzz to life, according to The New York Times.
Sayragul Sautybay, a Kazakh woman forced to teach at a camp, told the Times that in her experience, officials didn’t provide any medical support for the detained: “If the coronavirus spread inside the camps, they would not help, they would not provide any medical support.”
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As the coronavirus outbreak dies down in China and surges in the West, Chinese officials and propagandists are declaring a victory for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the “people’s war” against the virus.
In a bit of revisionist history, they are hailing the government’s response as buying the world time (vindicating a whistleblower who died treating COVID-19 patients) and even claiming the virus may not have originated in China.
In total, China has 81,000 confirmed cases of infection, with 3,200 deaths and more than 71,000 recoveries. At its peak in February, China was reporting thousands of new cases each day, while now numbers have dwindled into the teens and 20s. Many of the new cases came in from other global hotspots, such as Europe.
Yet Chinese citizens, intellectuals, and journalists are pushing back against the national narrative. They’re criticizing the government for squelching whistleblowers, covering up the severity of the virus, and using draconian measures to bar residents from leaving their homes. Some are dodging censors to publish banned articles, while others take a more primitive approach: yelling out their windows.
On March 6, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan visited a community in Wuhan to observe the food and supply distribution to quarantined citizens. A cell phone video shows residents yelling from their apartment windows, “Fake! It’s all fake!” They claim the estate management company had cleaned up the area before the official’s arrival and arranged fake volunteers to pass out groceries.
In a rare move, the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily shared a clip of the video and used it to criticize the apartment complex’s manager. State-run media sometimes allows these types of dissent as long as it targets local-level officials—so it seems the central government is trying to fix the people’s problems.
Days later, President Xi Jinping also visited Wuhan with a surgical mask. He visited a community center and hospital for quarantined patients, and walked through an apartment complex. He video chatted with frontline doctors to “express my sincere care and concern, and pay high respect to you.” To prevent a repeat of Sun’s visit, authorities stationed police officers in some apartments to keep residents from yelling out their windows.
On the same day as Xi’s victory tour in Wuhan, Renwu Magazine (or People), published an explosive profile of Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital. She said on Dec. 30 she shared a photo of a diagnostic report for a patient showing the words “SARS coronavirus.” Medical professionals passed the image around. Authorities quickly reprimanded them for spreading rumors. Her hospital's disciplinary office also accused her of “manufacturing rumors.”
“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand,” Ai told Renwu. “I would have [obscenity] talked about it to whoever, where ever I could.” Several of her colleagues have since died of the virus.
The article quickly went viral on Chinese social media, but censors immediately got to work scrubbing it from the internet. So Chinese netizens started to look for innovative ways to bypass censors. They posted the story in English, Korean, Braille, Morse code, emojis, ancient Chinese script, and Chinese romanization. Someone used QR codes to share the article paragraph by paragraph while others recorded themselves reading the article aloud on a video sharing platform.
Around the same time, Wuhan author Fang Fang wrote a fiery opinion piece in Caixin responding to Wuhan party secretary Wang Zhonglin’s call for the people of Wuhan to thank Xi and the CCP for providing direction during the outbreak. Instead, Fang countered that the party should thank the brave people of Wuhan: “The government must express its gratitude to the thousands of families who have watched their loved ones die in the outbreak …The government must thank all of the 40,000 medical personnel … for snatching life after life from the clutches of death at great personal risk.
“I say to the government: You need to rein in your arrogance and humbly offer thanks to your masters—in this case, the millions of people in Wuhan.”
She also called for an investigation into how the outbreak began and mistakes the government made. The guilty, Fang argued, deserve punishment: “Perhaps the least the public could do would be to write a petition urging the resignation of officials who view politics as their lifeblood but treat people’s lives like dirt.”
Censors quickly removed the article.
Chinese officials took to Twitter (which is banned in China) to blast the United States’ response to the virus. Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, tweeted a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in the United States: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”
Amid increased tensions between the two largest economies in the world, China on Wednesday announced it would expel U.S. journalists who work for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Chinese officials said the move was in retaliation for the Trump administration capping the number of Chinese citizens working in state-owned media in the United States and labeling them “foreign missions.”
In the past few years, these journalists have reported groundbreaking stories about the detention of more than 1 million Uighurs in re-education camps in Xinjiang, the government’s crackdown on house churches, as well as the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said it “deplored” the cancellation of the reporters’ credentials, noting it affects at least 13 reporters. “Journalists illuminate the world we live in,” FCCC said in a statement. “China, through this action, is dimming itself.”
Quarantine boredom: As Americans are now asked to stay home during the COVID-19 outbreak, perhaps we can look to Wuhan residents to see how they staved off boredom while stuck in their apartments for months.
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On Sunday mornings, Anne Ngai wishes she could step inside her church in Mong Kok and worship with fellow congregants. Instead, she sings along to a livestreamed service that she watches from a tablet in her living room.
Many Christians in Hong Kong are like Ngai, watching livestreamed or pre-recorded messages online as most churches have suspended onsite services during the coronavirus pandemic. After officials declared it an emergency on Jan. 25, the outbreak has now led to 134 confirmed cases and four deaths in the city. Among the infected patients is a preacher of Jubilant Grace Methodist Church and a member of Sai Wan Ho Christian Gospel Disciples Church.
Church services have moved to Facebook and YouTube. Small groups have also switched to Skype and the video conferencing platform Zoom. To Ngai, 41, the experience of gathering in person is “irreplaceable.” She feels worship should be done in a community, not alone. While her church members do leave real-time comments during the YouTube livestream, the remarks are few and mostly revolve around audiovisual issues.
On Facebook, participants in Flow Church’s broadcast reacted with strings of thumbs up, hearts, and laughing face emojis. More than 500 viewers joined the 1.5-hour livestream on March 7. They also left comments, expressing appreciation for the rap segment by the praise band, responding to a sermon about equipping oneself in faith, and echoing “Amen” after prayers for the society strained by the epidemic.
To do online church well, “the biggest challenge is the interactive mood with the congregation and different communication methods,” said Poon Chi Kong, pastor of Flow Church. It’s figuring out “how we can let them feel that we are worshipping together and it’s not one-sided.”
To enhance fellowship online, Flow Church holds a live music session where praise team members respond to viewers who type in comments and song requests. Across screens, musicians and viewers chat and joke around. Flow Church also conducted communion during its Feb. 15 broadcast. Participants partook of the elements in their homes at the same time and responded with “Thanks be to God for His grace” in the comments.
Since moving the church service online, about the same number of people watch the livestream as attend the brick-and-mortar Flow Church service. Yet other churches have seen a drop in attendance: One 300-member church in Sha Tin saw a 30 percent decrease since turning to livestream. Offerings have also dropped by 50 percent in the past few weeks.
In a sanctuary in Tsuen Wan that used to seat 400 congregants, Ho Yee Lai now worships among 40 people. This church is one of the few still holding onsite services, though it livestreams them as well. “Sitting in church, I can concentrate a lot more in a spiritual atmosphere, looking at the cross,” the 49-year-old social worker said. “It’s peaceful and quiet.”
Members attending in person have to take extra precautionary steps. Wearing a mask is a must. Before entering the sanctuary, Ho needs to wash her hands, have her temperature checked, and register her name and contact information.
Worshippers sit farther apart. The church photographs the congregation in case someone contracts COVID-19 and they need to trace where everyone sat. To minimize contamination, there are no Bibles, hymnals, or bulletins now. Leaders have suspended communion and children’s worship, while small groups can book a room with the church or meet in a park.
The big question for churches is when to resume regular onsite services. Schools plan to reopen on April 20, and some churches look to that date as their gauge. Still, each church also must decide what coronavirus precautions to take and whether it can effectively implement them in time to resume services.
While many may feel anxious or uneasy during the epidemic, Wilson Lam, a deacon at the Sha Tin church, feels an urgency to act. Lam and his fellow church members have prepared hand sanitizer to distribute to the community this week. “I feel a sense of responsibility,” Lam said. “Given this situation in society and because the church represents our faith, I want to help those in need.”