China sacks top political leaders from coronavirus epicentre after spike in deaths

China has sacked the top political leaders of coronavirus-stricken Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, after a dramatic spike in the official death toll and number of infections.

The removal of the high-profile figures is the latest in a purge that saw Hubei’s two most senior health officials fired earlier this week as criticism grows over the way the outbreak has been handled, with claims of under-reporting.

The province reported a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases on Thursday, raising the total number of nationwide infections to nearly 60,000 after Hubei authorities changed the way they count infections – fuelling fears over a lack of transparency.

In Hubei, where tens of millions of people are trapped as part of an unprecedented quarantine effort, 242 new deaths were reported on Thursday.

Another 14,840 people were confirmed to be infected with the virus, with the new cases and deaths by far the biggest one-day increases since the crisis began.

Jiang Chaoliang, Hubei’s party secretary, will be replaced by Shanghai mayor Ying Yong, while Wuhan party chief Ma Guoqiang will be replaced by an official from Shandong, Xinhua news agency reported.

Thursday’s spike came as Hubei officials said they were correcting previous diagnoses to include people “clinically diagnosed” with COVID-19.

The new system means doctors can use lung imaging, rather than solely laboratory tests.

COVID-19 is believed to have originated late last year at a seafood market in Hubei province’s capital Wuhan.

More transparency

Pressure on local officials for their perceived incompetence has mounted particularly after the death last week of a Chinese doctor who was punished by Wuhan authorities for raising the alarm about COVID-19.

Wuhan authorities also faced criticism in January for going ahead with an annual public banquet for 40,000 families just days before the city was placed on lockdown.

Other changes have been taking place in the province, including the sacking of a top Red Cross official in Wuhan for dereliction of duty and the removal of health officials in other cities.

Analysts said Hubei’s new methodology to count infections might be for medical reasons and could be because Xi wants officials to be more transparent, but the immediate impact was to sow more distrust.

“Oddly, this now is a moment of greater transparency,” Sam Crane, political science professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, told AFP.

“It is not clear if the problem up to now, on this issue, was lack of transparency or simply bad medical practice,” Crane said.

Yun Jiang, a China researcher at Australian National University, said the new methodology may be a “practical measure” because Hubei has a shortage of laboratory testing kits.

“I don’t think the numbers are necessarily manipulated for political purposes but the numbers themselves may not be so trustworthy,” Yun told AFP.

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