China has revised the official death toll from the coronavirus in Wuhan by adding 1,290 fatalities, making it 3,869 instead of the previously reported 2,579 deaths. Wuhan was the first epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak and the world has been watching very closely the data that has come from the city and China to draw their own conclusions and plan their own responses to the pandemic.
The official line is that the dramatic revision is due to delays, mistakes and omissions. We will surely see similar revisions from other countries. For example, in the United Kingdom the official death numbers from coronavirus only include patients that have died in hospitals and exclude anyone who died from the virus in care homes or in the community.
However, the revision seems to come very late and amidst increasing criticisms of China’s handling of the initial stages of the pandemic. China has a history of strongly censoring the data and information that is shared, be it on the internet or on its social media platforms, and has been accused of covering up the outbreak as well as the official numbers.
Just this week, Donald Trump has halted funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO) because of concerns that the organisation had played a role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.
Given the mounting pressure on China, one has to question the timing of the revision and the stated motive of increased transparency and accountability.
Accurate data is absolutely essential during a pandemic as it helps others to plan their own responses to the crisis. One lesson that will hopefully come out of the coronavirus disaster is that we need better, more transparent, and ideally real-time data collection systems across the globe.
If we want to be better prepared for a future pandemic, we need big data and artificial intelligence systems in place that detect, track and analyse future outbreaks in real-time. However, such systems will only ever be effective if all countries commit to true transparency and accountability.