‘Nervous’ China accused of silencing families of virus victims

The families of Wuhan’s coronavirus dead have claimed Chinese authorities are trying to silence them as a team of investigators look to identify the source of the coronavirus pandemic.

The World Health Organisation-led team of scientists was finally given the green light to proceed with their long-delayed investigations on Thursday despite the reluctance of Beijing as it looks to deflect blame over the pandemic.

China has meticulously controlled who and what investigators will be granted access to in Wuhan, including the families of the near 4000 victims of the virus in the city.

Relatives say the Communist Party of China has deleted their social media group they had used to converse with one another and are being pressured to keep quiet while the WHO team is in the city.

A man is transported in an ambulance in the city of Wuhan. Source: Getty
Wuhan's response to the initial outbreak has faced criticism from some inside and outside of China. Source: Getty

The group, on popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, was set up by families who have banded together online in a shared quest for accountability from Wuhan officials, who they blame for mishandling the outbreak that tore through the city a year ago.

The effort has been thwarted by official obstruction, monitoring of social media groups and intimidation, the next-of-kin say.

The families say they have been instructed to not speak to foreign media and some have been threatened with job losses for other family members.

However, pressure has escalated in the past few days, apparently to muzzle any criticism and avoid embarrassment during the highly sensitive WHO investigation.

Zhang Hai holds up a photo of his father taken in his youth during an interview in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Zhang is demanding to meet a visiting World Health Organization expert team, saying it should speak with affected families who allege they are being muffled by the Chinese government.(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Zhang Hai holds up a photo of his father who died from the coronavirus at the start of the pandemic. Source: AP

Families believe Beijing is ‘nervous’

The WeChat group, used by 80 to 100 family members over the past year, was suddenly deleted without explanation about 10 days ago, said Zhang Hai, a group member and a vocal critic of the outbreak’s handling.

“This shows that [Chinese authorities] are very nervous. They are afraid that these families will get in touch with the WHO experts,” said Zhang, 51, whose father died early in the outbreak of suspected Covid-19.

“When the WHO arrived in Wuhan, [authorities] forcibly demolished [the group]. As a result we have lost contact with many members.”

He told Associated Press he hopes the investigators “don’t become a tool to spread lies”.

“This was a criminal act, and I don’t want the WHO to be coming to China to cover up these crimes.”

Other next-of-kin confirmed the group’s deletion.

Popular platforms routinely censor content deemed objectionable by the government.

Wuhan residents in January last year preparing for a city-wide lockdown. Source: Getty
Wuhan residents in January last year preparing for a city-wide lockdown. Source: Getty

Relatives accuse the Hubei Province and Wuhan governments of allowing Covid-19 to explode out of control by trying to conceal the outbreak when it first emerged in the city in December 2019, then failing to alert the public and bungling the response.

Many next-of-kin belief the province’s death toll has been grossly miscalculated, saying that the scarcity of testing in the outbreak’s chaotic early days meant many likely died without being confirmed as having the disease.

Another family member, a retiree who says her adult daughter died of the virus in January last year, said that she was last week summoned by authorities and warned not to “speak to media or be used by others.”

Authorities came to her door on Tuesday “and sang the same old tune and gave me 5,000 yuan (AU$1000) in a ‘condolence payment,’” she said, requesting anonymity.

Zhang called on the WHO experts to “bravely” meet with next-of-kin, saying the investigators are likely to be misled or obstructed by Chinese authorities.

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