Chinese Whistleblowers ‘Retract’ Letter Exposing Coronavirus Chaos in Wuhan

This photo taken on February 22, 2020 shows a nurse adjusting his goggles in an intensive care unit treating COVID-19 coronavirus patients at a hospital in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. - China on February 26 reported 52 new coronavirus deaths, the lowest figure in more than three weeks, …
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Two medical workers from hospitals in Guangzhou, China, wrote a profoundly disturbing letter to famed British medical journal the Lancet this week, detailing hideous working conditions in coronavirus wards, dire shortages of medical supplies, and an atmosphere of anxiety and despair among nursing staff.

The letter was suddenly retracted on Wednesday at the request of the authors, raising suspicions they were pressured to discredit themselves by the Chinese Communist Party.

The letter, published on February 24, is still available in its entirety on the Lancet’s website, but it has been labeled with a red “RETRACTED” watermark. The British journal appended a brief note to the letter explaining why it was retracted:

On Feb 26, 2020, we were informed by the authors of this Correspondence that the account described therein was not a first-hand account, as the authors had claimed, and that they wished to withdraw the piece. We have therefore taken the decision to retract this Correspondence.

The fact that the letter was not removed was taken by some observers as a sign the Lancet’s editors believe it is genuine and the authors were pressured into requesting a retraction. 

Gizmodo said on Thursday:

That the authors of the letter fabricated their accounts or based them on the accounts of others who had first-hand knowledge is certainly a possibility. More plausible is that Chinese authorities interfered in this case, compelling the authors to demand that their letter be taken down – though we have not seen any direct evidence to support this possibility.

When Gizmodo asked the Lancet about the letter, the response was very diplomatic and said little beyond what the original retraction note conveyed, although a spokesman added that “a number of readers” raised “questions regarding the validity of this correspondence” even before the authors modified their position and claimed their information was second-hand:

“Questions regarding the validity of this correspondence were brought to our attention by a number of readers,” wrote a Lancet media spokesperson to Gizmodo in an email. “In addition, we received a direct communication from the authors of this correspondence … stating that the account they described was not first-hand, as they had originally claimed in the correspondence, and that they wished to withdraw the piece. Following due process according to the COPE retraction guidelines, we determined that it was our duty to retract this correspondence.”

To which the spokesperson added: “Every piece of original research published across The Lancet Group is subject to peer-review. However, we also publish a range of additional content, including correspondence, which is not. In these instances, we take the perspectives provided by authors on trust.”

Reuters added that a medical team sent from Guangdong province, where Guangzhou is located, to the virus outbreak epicenter in Wuhan “posted an online statement to a newspaper saying the two were not part of the team and their description of conditions was not accurate.”

Of course, such a statement would be expected if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided to discredit a pair of troublesome nurses, and while the Lancet did not divulge the identity of the “number of readers” who questioned the validity of the letter, every longtime observer of Chinese politics is familiar with swarms of “netizens” besieging foreign corporations and media outlets with complaints that echo the CCP party line.

Gizmodo and Reuters tried to get in touch with the original authors, Yingchun Zeng of Third Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou Medical Hospital and Yan Zhen of Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital in Guangzhou. Neither responded, and Zhen did not report for work on Thursday, a development Gizmodo viewed “quite ominously.” Even more ominously, the second time Reuters tried to contact Zhen, someone at Sun Yat-Sen Memorial said the hospital had no employee by that name.

According to the letter they wrote to the Lancet, Zeng and Zhan were nurses dispatched to Wuhan to assist with the coronavirus response by working in an isolation ward, providing what they described as “basic nursing care” to patients.

The conditions they reported seeing in the isolation ward were very different from the Chinese Communist Party’s official narrative about an outbreak coming under control after diligent and professional work by well-trained and well-equipped doctors. 

Zeng and Zhan pleaded for help from the international community to cope with an epidemic out of control and an over-stressed Chinese medical system on the brink of collapse:

The conditions and environment here in Wuhan are more difficult and extreme than we could ever have imagined. There is a severe shortage of protective equipment, such as N95 respirators, face shields, goggles, gowns, and gloves. The goggles are made of plastic that must be repeatedly cleaned and sterilised in the ward, making them difficult to see through. Due to the need for frequent hand washing, several of our colleagues’ hands are covered in painful rashes. As a result of wearing an N95 respirator for extended periods of time and layers of protective equipment, some nurses now have pressure ulcers on their ears and forehead. When wearing a mask to speak with patients, our voices are muted, so we have to speak very loudly. Wearing four layers of gloves is abnormally clumsy and does not work—we can’t even open the packaging bags for medical devices, so giving patients injections is a huge challenge. In order to save energy and the time it takes to put on and take off protective clothing, we avoid eating and drinking for 2 hours before entering the isolation ward. Often, nurses’ mouths are covered in blisters. Some nurses have fainted due to hypoglycaemia and hypoxia.

In addition to the physical exhaustion, we are also suffering psychologically. While we are professional nurses, we are also human. Like everyone else, we feel helplessness, anxiety, and fear. Experienced nurses occasionally find the time to comfort colleagues and try to relieve our anxiety. But even experienced nurses may also cry, possibly because we do not know how long we need to stay here and we are the highest-risk group for COVID-19 infection. So far 1716 Chinese staff have been infected with COVID-19 and nine of them have unfortunately passed away. Due to an extreme shortage of health-care professionals in Wuhan, 14 000 nurses from across China have voluntarily come to Wuhan to support local medical health-care professionals. But we need much more help. We are asking nurses and medical staff from countries around the world to come to China now, to help us in this battle.

“We hope the COVID-19 epidemic will end soon, and that people worldwide will remain in good health. We declare no competing interests,” the nurses concluded, presumably anticipating Communist Party efforts to discredit them.

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