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Is China Underreporting Its Coronavirus Figures?

The U.S. intelligence community says China has underreported its total coronavirus infection figures. Does it matter?

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 1, 2020, in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 1, 2020, in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The United States questions China’s coronavirus figures, WHO warns of 1 million cases in the “next few days,” and the U.S. Navy will patrol near Venezuela.

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U.S. Intelligence Alleges China Underreported Coronavirus Cases

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The United States questions China’s coronavirus figures, WHO warns of 1 million cases in the “next few days,” and the U.S. Navy will patrol near Venezuela.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

U.S. Intelligence Alleges China Underreported Coronavirus Cases

Even as global economies grind to a halt, Great Power competition has not—and the question of who deserves the blame for the slow global response to the pandemic is taking center stage. The White House has moved on from calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” and is instead pointing to China’s allegedly misleading infection figures. A U.S. intelligence community assessment backs this up, suggesting China underreported its number of coronavirus cases.

On Wednesday, China began disclosing the number of asymptomatic coronavirus cases alongside any new numbers. This has the potential to muddy the waters and disrupt overall counts. According to the South China Morning Post, China identified over 43,000 asymptomatic cases in February that were not included in China’s overall tally.

Although National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said that the United States is “not in a position to confirm any of the numbers coming out of China,” U.S. President Donald Trump was ambivalent, “As to whether or not their numbers are accurate, I’m not an accountant from China … we don’t have to make a big deal out of it,” he said.

Even if China’s fudged the numbers, was the U.S. adequately prepared? While the White House seeks to pass around the blame, evidence is mounting that the United States should have been better prepared to face the pandemic. A leaked U.S. Department of Defense report from 2017 surfaced yesterday warning of a “novel respiratory disease, particularly a novel influenza disease” as the most likely pandemic threat.

On March 25 in Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko called the coronavirus pandemic the “worst intelligence failure in U.S. history” and one that rests squarely on Trump’s shoulders, given the warnings that intelligence agencies provided. As Mark Perry reports in FP, simulation exercises from as early as 2001—and as recently as last October—painted a clear picture of the economic devastation a global pandemic could unleash, but the warnings were ignored. U.S. Senator Chris Murphy wrote in FP earlier this week that the Trump administration has “completely botched” the coronavirus response and that Washington must start planning now for the next pandemic so it is never caught flat-footed again.

Compounding U.S. problems, Trump reported on Wednesday that the federal strategic stockpile of personal protective equipment is near empty. On the same day, the pro-Kremlin Russian news outlet RT live-streamed a Russian plane carrying humanitarian aid arriving at New York’s JFK airport. The delivery “represents a major optics win for Moscow as the worldwide delivery of medical supplies from competing powers takes on an increasingly geopolitical edge,” FP’s Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer report.

Does it matter if China is underreporting cases? According to Maria van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization, the WHO’s definition of a coronavirus infection includes asymptomatic cases for a reason. “From data that we have seen from China in particular, we know that individuals who are identified, who are listed as asymptomatic, about 75 percent of those actually go on to develop symptoms,” she said.

Writing in Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief, FP Senior Editor James Palmer lays out why China’s figures may be unreliable, “The question is this: How false is the data, and how deliberate is the concealment? There is a difference between numbers that are deliberately faked for the outside world and a state struggling—as all countries are—to gather information on a virus that is difficult to detect in many people.”

“It is likely that Beijing is deliberately underreporting the death toll in Wuhan, where the outbreak began, and the total number of cases across the country in February,” Palmer writes. “Bad numbers in China are always underreported, especially when the national image is at stake, and China is now keen to play up its victory against the virus in contrast with the West’s failures. Still, it’s not as if the Chinese leadership has a secret set of books containing more accurate figures.”

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What We’re Following Today 

U.S. to deploy more ships near Venezuela. In what officials say is a bid to halt drug trafficking in the region, the United States will deploy navy ships closer to Venezuela. Sources told Reuters that although U.S. Southern Command plans to move several Navy vessels closer to Venezuelan territory, but did not specify how close. The move comes as the United States attempts to increase pressure on Venezuela following a U.S. Justice Department indictment of President Nicolás Maduro and several of his associates. On Tuesday, the United States offered to lift sanctions on Venezuela if it accepted a U.S. proposal that includes the removal of Maduro from office.

WHO warns of 1 million coronavirus cases. In a news conference yesterday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the world should expect over a million confirmed coronavirus cases and 50,000 deaths in the next few days as he reported a “near-exponential growth” in the number of cases worldwide in the past five weeks. Tedros also said that the WHO, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund all backed providing debt relief to developing countries as they cope with the pandemic. On Wednesday, the IMF and World Bank said that Somalia had met the conditions for debt relief, and would see its debt burden drop from $5.2 billion to $577 million in about 3 years.

Coronavirus spreads to Brazil’s indigenous peoples. In a signal of the pandemic’s vast spread, a 19-year-old woman became the first member of Brazil’s indigenous communities to contract the coronavirus, according to Brazil’s health ministry. The woman, a health worker and member of the Kokama tribe, contracted the virus in a district deep in the Amazon, over 500 miles from Manaus in the state of Amazonas. Health experts worry of rapid contagion because of the communal living habits of some tribes.

Keep an Eye On 

Trump warns of Iran “sneak attack.” Citing both “information and belief,” Trump wrote on Twitter that Iran or an Iran-backed group are planning a “sneak attack” against U.S. forces in Iraq. Trump didn’t elaborate on his sources. U.S. and coalition forces suffered multiple rocket attacks in Iraq during the month of March by suspected Iranian-backed militias. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited the attacks when he announced further sanctions on Iranian companies and individuals on March 18.

Japan to distribute masks for all. In what could become a worldwide trend, the Japanese government says it will distribute two reusable cloth facemasks to 50 million Japanese households. Unlike the West, Japan already has a mask wearing culture; even so, stocks of masks have run out in some Japanese stores. On Tuesday a memo sent from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the White House said the widespread wearing of masks could be beneficial to halting the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.

Africom’s airstrike casualties questioned. The U.S. Africa Command says it is looking into whether airstrikes conducted against al-Shabab in February killed civilians following a report from Amnesty International. The group alleges that two airstrikes killed two people not involved with the Islamist group, despite Africom initially reporting that only al-Shabab members were killed in the strikes. The United States is on track to conduct a record number of airstrikes in the Africom region. In 2019, the United States launched a record 63 strikes, and has already launched 32 in 2020.

Odds and Ends

Malaysia’s Ministry for Women, Family, and Community Development halted a public information campaign after it was called out for its obvious sexism. Online infographics posted by the ministry encouraged women at home on lockdown to continue wearing makeup, dress in office clothes, and refrain from nagging their husbands. After a social media backlash, the ministry said the campaign was focused on “maintaining positive relationships among family members during the period they are working from home,” and promised it would “remain cautious in the future.”

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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