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Radio Free Asia

Officials in China's Wuhan Deny Reports of Elderly Care Home Fever Deaths

2020-02-25 -- The coronavirus has claimed the lives of elderly care home residents in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, with outbreaks likely in other similar facilities, local media reported, amid strenuous denials from local government officials.

Cutting-edge news website Caixin said in a recent report that 11 elderly people had died at the Wuhan Social Welfare Institute from "fevers and respiratory failure."

A statement on the official website of the Wuhan municipal cyberspace administration denied the report.

Caixin then doubled down and published the names and dates of all of the deaths after a local official threatened to pursue the organization for rumor-mongering, a crime carrying a maximum jail sentence of seven years in China.

A source close to a care home run by the government's Ximajie Community Health Center who gave only her surname Chen said more than 120 residents were taken away in ambulances on Monday.

"They were saying that 120 were infected [with coronavirus] and taken to hospital," Chen said.

Repeated calls to the Ximajie Health Center in Wuhan's Jiang'an district rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.

Ren Aiping, the manager of another care home nearby, said there had been several outbreaks in local facilities for the elderly, but was unsure of the exact number.

Nucleic acid tests

Xia Houmin, an employee at the Dannan Community Care Home, said all staff and residents in that facility were undergoing nucleic acid testing for coronavirus.

"We are doing nucleic acid tests right now on all of the elderly in our nursing home, as well as the employees," Xia said, before hanging up.

Employees who answered the phone at several more care homes in Wuhan cut off the phone immediately when contacted by RFA.

According to Caixin, the deaths of the 11 elderly patients were recorded as being caused by sepsis, heart attack and stroke, but many had also had a fever, suggesting that the coronavirus may have triggered the other problems.

An earlier Caixin report had said there were suspected coronavirus cases in care homes run by the Wuhan municipal government's civil affairs bureau.

Wuhan volunteer Gao Mingyu said Caixin's reports were entirely credible.

"It just goes to show that some people dare to tell the truth, and some people are controlled by the system and dare not tell the truth," Gao said. "In this case, a conscientious reporter wanted to tell the truth, and Caixin was courageous enough to [publish] it."

Repeated calls to the Wuhan civil affairs bureau rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.

The reports come as 2,563 deaths were reported in Hubei, compared with 2,705 deaths worldwide from coronavirus, or COVID-19. Nearly 19,000 people have recovered in the province since the start of the epidemic, according to a tracking website run by Johns Hopkins University.

High pay for crematorium work

Wang Yan, whose hometown is in Hubei's Xiangfan city, told RFA that crematoriums in Wuhan, the provincial capital, are continuing to advertise for new staff at a high salary.

"Someone living in Nanzhang county told me yesterday that someone had given him a phone number to call and told him to get in contact with the guy and go and work in Wuhan moving dead bodies," Wang said.

"They pay 4,000 yuan (US$ 670) for the night shift, which is a job that usually pays 5,000 yuan a month if you work in the daytime," he said. "He said they are recruiting large numbers of people right now."

Repeated calls to the recruitment number were cut off by the recipient on Tuesday, likely because they showed up as being from overseas.

However, an advertisement seen by RFA showed that recruiters were looking for 50 people who would be billeted in a guesthouse while they worked. Transportation to Wuhan would be provided, as well as an evening meal, it said.

New recruits would receive 4,000 yuan to fetch and take away two dead bodies per night, which would rise to 5,000 yuan if they kept at the job, the notice said.

Social media users have previously told RFA that there are 84 incinerators located at seven funeral homes across Wuhan, with a capacity to perform 2,016 cremations in any 24-hour period.

All of those funeral homes have been working around the clock in recent weeks, with dead bodies lying in rows waiting for cremation, social media reports said.

Wuhan voluntary worker Zhong Qiang, who recently carried out an unofficial survey of funeral homes and crematoria in Wuhan, said what he saw backed up the claims of 24-7 cremation in the city.

He said a small crematorium typically has around 11 furnaces that can cremate 120 bodies a day, while the larger facilities have double that number.

Reported by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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