Coronavirus: Top Hubei officials fired, as surge in infections reported

New way of counting coronavirus cases sees number of infected in China rise by over 15,000

Personnel with medical supplies disembarking from Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force planes at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Hubei province yesterday.
Personnel with medical supplies disembarking from Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force planes at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Hubei province yesterday.PHOTO: REUTERS

The number of new coronavirus infections in China skyrocketed yesterday by more than 15,000 after authorities changed the way they calculate the figures and top officials were fired for mishandling the outbreak.

In an effort to end the underreporting of the outbreak, it was decided that the list of confirmed cases would include not just those diagnosed by testing kits, but also by CT scans, among others.

This change immediately saw Hubei’s infection numbers swell by 14,840 cases in a single day - this included 13,332 patients that were counted as confirmed cases under this expanded testing criteria. They would’ve been left out under the old counting method.

That brings the total number of infections in China to nearly 60,000 now. The death toll also surged by 254 in a day to total 1,367 so far.

Meanwhile Japan reported its first death of someone who tested positive for the virus, but said it was not clear if the virus had caused the death. This makes it the third death outside mainland China.

Doctors and scientists have raised concerns over the under-reporting of infected people, as Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province face an acute shortage of diagnostic kits and hospital beds.

Professor Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University's School of Public Health, said the new counting method "makes a lot more sense".

"We've always known that there are more infections than indicated by the number of confirmed cases, partially because not everyone who's got pneumonia has been tested, and partly because many people with the infection don't have pneumonia and are not eligible to be tested, and are not even eligible to be considered for testing in general," he said.

Yesterday, Hubei and Wuhan's top political leaders were also sacked for their mishandling of the outbreak and replaced by allies of President Xi Jinping.

 
 

Hubei party chief Jiang Chaoliang, 62, made way for Mr Ying Yong, 62, the mayor of China's financial capital Shanghai.

The party boss of Shandong's provincial capital Jinan, Mr Wang Zhonglin, 57, was also tasked to take over from Mr Ma Guoqiang, 56, as Wuhan party chief.

The move was "based on the overall situation, according to the needs of the epidemic prevention and control work and the actual situation of the leadership team in Hubei province", Xinhua reported.

Pressure on local officials for their perceived incompetence has mounted particularly after the death last week of a Chinese doctor, who had been punished by the Wuhan authorities for raising the alarm about the new virus.

Their removal is meant to provide scapegoats and assuage public anger, said political scientist Lynette Ong from the University of Toronto.

 
 

"But it really does not address the root cause of the problem, that is, the lack of information transparency and information control, which are deeply institutional in nature," she said, noting that Mr Ying is a close ally of President Xi. "While we are not sure whether he will indeed do a better job, what is almost certain is the political narrative coming out of Hubei from now on will be more aligned with Xi's."

Yesterday's political reshuffle also included the removal of Mr Zhang Xiaoming, 56, as director of the ministerial-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing. He was demoted to deputy director and replaced by another Xi ally and a hardliner, Mr Xia Baolong, 67.

Mr Zhang's departure follows that of Mr Wang Zhimin, China's top liaison officer in Hong Kong. Both men were believed to have been punished for the political unrest that has rocked Hong Kong for months.

Correction note: An earlier version of the article stated the wrong figure for the number of new cases in Hubei. This has been corrected. We are sorry for the error. 

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2020, with the headline 'Top Hubei officials fired, as surge in infections reported'. Print Edition | Subscribe