Authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan on Friday raised the official death toll, where the coronavirus epidemic emerged last year, by 50 percent.
Officials at the city's epidemic control headquarters added 1,290 deaths to the number of officially recognized deaths, bringing the total figure to 3,869.
The revised death toll was released as new data released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on Friday showed China’s economy shrank by 6.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, the first contraction since 1976 when China was emerging from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. The data illustrated how much the coronavirus pandemic forced the world’s second largest economy to shut down.
The death toll update comes amid growing criticism of China's handling of the outbreak in its initial stages, which included delaying the public announcement of human-to-human transmission in January even after it was known.
Eight doctors who tried to warn people of a new viral pneumonia similar to SARS were hauled in by police for questioning in December and accused in state media of "rumor-mongering."
Wuhan residents have also called the official toll into question, taking to social media with estimates based on round-the clock operation of cremation facilities in recent weeks, as well as the number of urns being handed out to grieving families.
These informal, collective estimates have led some to conclude that some 40,000 people died, many of them at home and without a formal diagnosis of COVID-19.
The official death toll is generally garnered from hospitals, and relatives have told RFA that many cases are simply being attributed to other causes, including "pneumonia."
China's Global Times newspaper, which is published by ruling party paper the People's Daily, said the revised toll was a "responsible correction" based on "facts."
"It is hoped the veracity of the data can put all controversy surrounding it to rest," it said.
International doubts about China
China has come under increasing pressure from the international community in recent weeks, with the administration of President Donald Trump and other world leaders raising doubts about its transparency, amid rumors that the virus actually originated in an Wuhan laboratory.
"We'll have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn't have been stopped earlier," British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said Thursday, while French President Emmanuel Macron told the Financial Times it would be "naive" to think China had handled the pandemic well, adding: "There are clearly things that have happened that we don't know about."
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian acknowledged that the virus's rapid spread had contributed to undercounting, but added "there has never been any concealment, and we'll never allow any concealment."
But while residents of Wuhan have been reluctant to accept the official death toll, they have been far more willing to buy the ruling Chinese Communist Party's claim that the coronavirus was brought to China by U.S. soldiers, rather than emerging from wild species sold in a market in Wuhan.
Sources in the city told RFA on Friday that officials are repeating the idea that the coronavirus was brought to China by U.S. soldiers taking part in the 2019 Military World Games, which were hosted by Wuhan in October.
Wuhan resident Wang Zhigang said he had hear the rumor repeated by vegetable vendors on the city's street.
"If you talk to them or to any residents from around here about the [origin of the] epidemic, they will all say it was brought to China by U.S. soldier who came here to attend the military games," Wang said.
Several officials in the city told RFA that the story is being pushed around on social media by officials, most of whom believe it themselves.
State-sponsored conspiracy theory spreads
Wang said the fact that unofficial channels were being used to spread the idea had contributed to its popularity.
"Eighty or 90 percent of people believe in this propaganda, which says that the virus was brought by the U.S. military," he said. "Everyone, even very good friends of mine, is now thoroughly brainwashed, to the point where you can't discuss it with them."
A Wuhan resident surnamed Zhao confirmed Wang's account.
"Most people are saying that the five American soldiers who participated in the military games brought it here from the U.S., but officials won't say this publicly," Zhao said.
Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan said she has seen the same phenomenon.
"There are some workers who saying it was brought by Americans," Zhang said. "It seems that the propaganda machine is really very powerful. I have heard people from all levels of society saying this."
Zhang said that Wuhan is now in a "highly politicized" state, with Communist Party flags hung out in the streets, drawing a parallel with Germany under the Nazis.
"As I understand it, you display the party flag when you hold a meeting or carry out party activities, and it's hung indoors," Zhang said. "But they are hanging them on the streets right now, which is inappropriate."
Zhang, a rights lawyer from Shanghai who has been visiting hospitals in the city to report on the ongoing coronavirus epidemic there, said new fever cases are still arriving.
"I went to Tongji Hospital affiliated to Huazhong University of Science and Technology yesterday, and the doorman at the fever clinic said that there were new fever patients [on April 15]," she said.
She said there are still "hundreds" of patients who have yet to be discharged from respiratory disease wards, while experts have warned that there are still large numbers of asymptomatic patients in the city.
"There is no way to guard against asymptomatic infections, and the health code [used to allow the lifting of the lockdown] is discriminatory," Zhang said.
"The authorities in Beijing won't even recognize the health code, so people from Hubei province [of which Wuhan is the capital] can't go there."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.