Funeral parlour report fans fears over Wuhan death toll from coronavirus

A medical worker puts on a protective suit before entering a sports centre which has been converted into a makeshift hospital to treat patients of the novel coronavirus, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 12, 2020.
PHOTO: Reuters

Authorities in Wuhan are unlikely to disclose the overall number of deaths until now in the central Chinese city despite renewed concerns about underreporting of fatalities from the coronavirus pandemic.

An official at Wuhan's Civil Affairs Bureau said on Monday that the numbers would be released in the second week of June as scheduled, and that there is no plan to alter the date.

The comment came after reports that funeral homes in Wuhan have ordered thousands more urns than the official death tally of coronavirus patients in the city.

In a report on the weekend, Caixin magazine quoted a truck driver as saying he delivered about 5,000 urns on Wednesday and Thursday to the funeral parlour in Hankou district - one of eight such facilities in the city.

One photograph published with the report purportedly showed 3,500 urns stacked on the floor of the funeral home.

According to official reports, Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has killed 2,535 people in Wuhan since it first emerged in December.

Wuhan, a city of about 11 million people in the province of Hubei, went into lockdown to try to control the spread of the coronavirus on January 23, a measure that included suspension of all funeral and mourning activities.

As a result, relatives of the deceased were only allowed to collect the ashes of their relatives from last week as the funeral homes began to clear their backlog.

Photos of long queues in front of Wuhan's funeral parlours and public cemeteries were widely shared online.

The Caixin report suggested that more people might have died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, than the official figure indicated.

It was also widely reported that the official death figure did not account for patients who have died before they were tested for the coronavirus and those who were also suffering from other diseases.

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Medical personnel interviewed have said that many patients were turned away in the early stages of the outbreak when the hospital system in Wuhan was overwhelmed.

According to the bureau, there were 56,007 cremations in Wuhan during the last quarter of 2019, nearly 3 per cent more than that recorded in the corresponding period of 2018 and about 4 per cent above that in the same period of 2017.

The official reports did not specify the reason for the rise.

A district official in Wuhan said on Monday that there was a period of "chaos and confusion" from mid-January to February and some of those patients who were suspected of having been infected with the virus were not counted in the official figures.

The official, who commented on the condition of anonymity, said that later figures - those published after Beijing sent its supervisors to Wuhan and overhauled the city's leadership - were basically accurate.

Beijing sent then-Jinan Communist Party secretary Wang Zhonglin to Wuhan to take command of the city in mid-February. Wang ordered cadres of neighbourhood communities to locate all suspected patients and send them to isolation or quarantine.

The district official said there was "no reason for Wang to hide the real death toll as the mess was left by his predecessors"

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"It is in his interest to expose the whole problem so he can have a clean start and ask for more help from the central government," the district official said.

Premier Li Keqiang has also urged cadres and officials to be "open and transparent" in releasing information on the epidemic.

"Being open and transparent means every new case must be reported once it's discovered, report them as they happen. [You should] not conceal or under-report," he said during a State Council meeting.

The South China Morning Post has reported that Wuhan's earliest Covid-19 cases can be traced back to mid November 2019, after which the spread in the city accelerated.

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This article was first published inĀ South China Morning Post.