China’s official death toll and infection numbers from a new coronavirus spiked dramatically on Thursday after authorities changed their counting methods, fueling concern the epidemic is far worse than being reported.
Two top-ranking politicians overseeing the epicenter of the outbreak were also sacked, adding to questions over China’s handling of the crisis, just hours after President Xi Jinping claimed “positive results” in battling the outbreak.
The World Health Organization also quickly countered Chinese reassurances that the epidemic, which has now officially killed more than 1,350 people in China, would peak in a matter of weeks.
“I think it’s way too early to try to predict the beginning, the middle or the end of this epidemic right now,” said Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergency program.
The virus has had massive ramifications globally since emerging from the central Chinese province of Hubei last month, with many countries banning travelers from China in a bid to stop people spreading the disease.
In Hubei, where tens of millions of people are trapped as part of an unprecedented quarantine effort, 242 new deaths were reported on Thursday.
Another 14,840 people were confirmed to be infected with the virus, with the new cases and deaths by far the biggest one-day increases since the crisis began.
The jumps raised the death toll to 1,355 and the total number of nationwide infections of the virus–officially named COVID-19–to nearly 60,000.
Hubei authorities said the huge increases were because they had broadened their definition for cases to include people “clinically diagnosed” via lung imaging.
Up until now, authorities had been documenting cases using a more sophisticated laboratory test.
The commission said it looked into past suspected cases and revised their diagnoses, suggesting that older cases were included in Thursday’s numbers.
About 56 million people in Hubei and its capital, Wuhan, are being banned from leaving as part of the quarantine efforts.
Tens of millions of others cities far from the epicenter are also enduring travel restrictions.
China had been praised by the World Health Organization 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, and US officials have also called for more openness from China’s Communist Party rulers, leading to fears that there may be similarities with the way it dealt with SARS.
Authorities in Hubei have been accused of concealing the gravity of the outbreak in late December and early January.
The death of an infected doctor who had tried to raise the alarm about the outbreak in December, but was silenced by authorities, triggered an outpouring of anger in China.
On Thursday, the leaders of Hubei and Wuhan were sacked, the highest-profile political scalps of the crisis.
Hubei’s two top health officials had already been sacked this week.
Analysts said Hubei’s new methodology to count infections might be for medical reasons and could be because Xi wants officials to be more transparent, but the immediate impact was to sow more distrust.
“Oddly, this now is a moment of greater transparency,” Sam Crane, political science professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, said.
“It is not clear if the problem up to now, on this issue, was lack of transparency or simply bad medical practice,” Crane said.
Yun Jiang, a China researcher at Australian National University, said the new methodology may be a “practical measure” because Hubei has a shortage of laboratory testing kits.
“I don’t think the numbers are necessarily manipulated for political purposes but the numbers themselves may not be so trustworthy,” Yun said.
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.
Several countries have banned arrivals from China, while major airlines have halted flights to and from the country, as hundreds of people have now been infected in some two dozen countries.
United Airlines extended its China flight cancellations into late April.
The outbreak has wreaked havoc on global events, too.
In Spain, organizers of the world’s top mobile telecommunications trade fair, the World Mobile Congress, said the event would be canceled following an exodus of industry heavyweights over coronavirus fears, including Nokia, Facebook and Vodafone.
It has also disrupted sporting events in China: motorsport’s governing body FIA announced the suspension of the Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai, originally scheduled for April 19, due to the “continued spread” of the coronavirus.
And this week’s Singapore Air Show–Asia’s biggest–was badly hit by exhibitors withdrawing and low attendance.
US planemaker Boeing warned that there was “no question” the outbreak would hammer the aviation industry and the broader economy.
The epidemic has threatened to harm the Chinese economy, the world’s second-largest, with ANZ bank warning that China’s first-quarter GDP growth would slow to 3.2-4.0 percent, down from a previous projection of 5.0 percent.
The authorities have tapped their propaganda powers to wage what President Xi Jinping has dubbed a “people’s war” against the new coronavirus that has killed more than 1,300 people and infected nearly 60,000.
Xi has paid tribute to “comrades… on the frontline” while state media has heralded the importance of patriotism in tackling the outbreak in a campaign reminiscent of Chairman Mao’s cries to mobilize the masses.
In China, political propaganda is never far away.
“Let us raise the Party flag in the face of the epidemic,” demands one slogan shared on social media in Zhejiang, an eastern province with the second-highest number of infections in the country.
In Hubei, the central province at the heart of the outbreak, the messages are downright threatening.
“Those who do not declare their fever are enemies,” proclaims a banner photographed on a building in Yunmeng.
In the same quarantined district, another slogan deliberately sows fear.
“To visit each other is to kill each other,” it reads. “To get together is to commit suicide.”
Neighbors are also being encouraged to report on each other elsewhere in the country, especially if they suspect anyone is from Hubei.
Some areas are even offering financial incentives for those who inform on their neighbors.
The streets and parks where people usually gather in all weather to chat, dance, workout or play cards are hopelessly empty.
The communist regime has rarely faced as much pressure in recent years as the huge outpouring of grief and anger it met after the death from the virus last week of a doctor from Wuhan, the city at the heart of the epidemic.
Li Wenliang was among a group of people who sounded the alarm about the virus in late December, only to be reprimanded and censored by the authorities.
The doctor was venerated as a hero, with news of his death prompting calls on social media for greater liberties and freedom of speech–while officials were vilified for letting the epidemic spiral into a national health crisis instead of listening to the doctor.
The current campaign aims to show President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party “are mobilized”, ensure people follow precautionary measures and “block information,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
The Chinese leaders “feel a little guilty for having reacted so slowly at the start. Now they are overreacting,” he said.
Another 44 people on board a cruise ship moored off Japan’s coast have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the country’s health minister said Thursday.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said the 44 new cases were from another 221 new tests. They raise the number of infections detected on the Diamond Princess to 218, in addition to a quarantine officer who also tested positive for the virus.
Kato said authorities now want to move elderly people off the ship if they test negative for the virus, offering to put them in government-designated lodging.
“On the ship, there are those of advanced age and with pre-existing conditions,” he told reporters.
“There are also those who are having to stay in rooms with no windows until the incubation period finishes” on Feb. 19, he added.
“We will conduct… tests for those who are high-risk and if they test negative, those who wish to disembark can go and live in a lodging facility that the government will prepare.”
“We wish to start the operation from tomorrow or later,” he said.
Of the newly diagnosed cases, 43 are passengers, and one a member of the crew.
Kato said five people from the ship are currently in serious condition in hospital, four of whom have tested positive for the virus. Test results for the fifth are still being processed.
The Diamond Princess has been moored off Japan since Feb. 3, after it emerged that a former passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong last month had tested positive for the virus now named COVID-19.
The ship was placed into quarantine shortly afterward and authorities have asked passengers and crew to remain on board until Feb. 19.
Those who have tested positive for the new virus have been taken off the ship to medical facilities, but questions have been raised about whether the quarantine on the ship is working, with dozens of new cases diagnosed almost daily.
Passengers are confined to cabins and required to wear masks and keep their distance from each other when they are allowed out for brief periods on open decks.
Japan initially tested around 300 people on the ship who had close contact with the former passenger or displayed symptoms, but they have gradually expanded the testing pool as new cases have been detected.
So far, 713 people have been tested, with officials saying they are currently limited by capacity.
At the moment they can test a maximum of 300 people a day but hope eventually to be able to expand this to 1,000 people a day.
In addition to the cases detected on the ship, Japan has confirmed 28 infections, among them evacuees who were flown back to the country from Hubei, the Chinese region where COVID-19 first emerged.
Four flights have brought back hundreds of evacuees, most of whom have been placed in “self-quarantine” in government-designated hotels.
Evacuees from the first flight, which landed on Jan. 29, were cleared to leave the quarantine on Wednesday night, after testing negative in a final round of checks.
The first evacuees to leave the quarantine departed their hotel in Chiba, east of Tokyo, on Wednesday night, thanking local residents for their solidarity.
More were leaving on Thursday morning, with others who arrived on later flights expected to receive clearance after an additional round of testing.
Meanwhile, a US cruise ship blocked from several Asian ports over concerns that a passenger could have been infected with the new coronavirus arrived off Cambodia Thursday, as frustrated holidaymakers expressed hope that their ordeal may soon be over.
The Westerdam was supposed to be taking its 1,455 passengers on a dream 14-day cruise around East Asia, beginning in Hong Kong on Feb. 1 and disembarking on Saturday in Yokohama, Japan.
But the ship was turned away from Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand over fears of the novel coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 1,300 people in China.
Cruise operator Holland America has insisted there are no cases of the SARS-like virus on board and Cambodia announced Wednesday the ship would be able to dock in Sihanoukville, on its southern coast.
By morning, the ship could be seen on the horizon off Sihanoukville, dwarfing the small fishing vessels that usually ply the waters.
“First land sighting from the #Westerdam as the sun rises over Cambodia,” passenger Christina Kerby tweeted.
Doctors were conducting health checks for the passengers, said transport minister Sun Chanthol, adding that about 20 on board were sick.
Their samples will be sent to the Pasteur Institute to test for the virus.
But “actually they don’t have symptoms of COVID-19. We just want to make sure that everything is ok,” he said.
Cambodian premier Hun Sen is a staunch Chinese ally and has been vocal in his support of Beijing’s handling of the epidemic, even going so far as to visit China last week in a show of solidarity.
“The permission to dock is to stop the disease of fear that is happening around the world,” he told state-affiliated media website Fresh News on Wednesday.
“We must help them when they asked us for help,” he added.
Neighbouring Thailand, which blocked the Westerdam from docking in its eastern seaboard port, on Thursday received cruise liner Seabourne Ovation in holiday resort town Phuket.
Another ship MV Quantum of the Seas is also scheduled to arrive Thursday.
Both ships were “not at risk,” an official said, adding that health checks were done before passengers could disembark for 10 hours.
“The passengers and crew… are European, which is different from MS Westerdam where there are some Chinese and Hong Kong passengers,” deputy transport minister Atirat Ratanasate said in a Facebook post.
Japan’s premier Shinzo Abe expressed worries last week over a possible infection on the Westerdam, and said measures will be taken to “reject entries” for foreigners into the country.
Cambodia, which has one confirmed case of the virus, is the recipient of billions of dollars in soft loans, infrastructure, and investment from China.