Death-count row heats up after Trump casts doubts

Top News | AGENCIES 3 Apr 2020

US President Donald Trump says the coronavirus statistics China is reporting seem "a little bit on the light side," while his national security adviser says Washington has no way of knowing if Beijing's figures are accurate.

The comments came after a senior Republican lawmaker cast doubt on Beijing's data and Bloomberg News said a classified US intelligence report had concluded that China had underreported the total cases and deaths it had suffered.

The coronavirus outbreak began in China in late 2019 but Beijing has reported fewer cases and deaths than in the United States, which now has the world's largest outbreak, with more than 215,350 confirmed cases - the largest publicly reported outbreak in the world - and over 5,110 deaths.

Trump told a daily briefing by his coronavirus task force that he had not received an intelligence report on China's data, but added: "The numbers seem to be a little bit on the light side - and I am being nice when I say that - relative to what we witnessed and what was reported."

But China rejected the US intelligence community's conclusion and accused the United States of seeking to shift the blame for its own handling of the outbreak.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying defended China's response as "open and transparent."

She added: "Some US officials just want to shift the blame. Can anyone tell us what the US has done in the two months [after the outbreak]?" she said.

Since China first disclosed the virus on December 31, it has reported about 82,000 cases and 3,300 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University's data.

Trump said he had discussed how China had dealt with the coronavirus outbreak in a phone call with President Xi Jinping last Friday, but "not so much the numbers."

Trump, who has toned down his criticism of China's handling of the virus outbreak since the call, said the US relationship with China was "very good" and both sides wanted to maintain multibillion-dollar trade deal reached earlier this year.

Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, told the same briefing Washington was "not in the position to confirm any of the numbers that are coming out of China."

He added: "There's lots of public reporting on whether the numbers are too low. You got access to those reports that are coming out of Chinese social media ... we just have no way to confirm any of those numbers."

Earlier, Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused Beijing of hiding the true number of those impacted.

He said he had called for the State Department to investigate Beijing's "initial cover-up and subsequent actions regarding this pandemic."

Separately, another 6.65 million US workers filed for unemployment benefits last week, the most ever recorded, as the coronavirus forces businesses to shut down nationwide, the Labor Department said yesterday. The figure for the week ended March 28 was double the number of first-time applications for jobless benefits registered in the previous week.

Meanwhile, Spain's death toll rose above 10,000 yesterday after a record 950 people died overnight, but health officials saw a glimmer of hope with the epidemic slowing in terms of proportional daily increases in infections and deaths.

Spain has the world's second-highest death toll at 10,003. Italy has 13,155. The number of registered cases rose about 8 percent from Wednesday to 110,238, the ministry said. The total deaths rose by just over 10 percent, about the same rate as the previous day.

"There's light at the end of the tunnel," health minister Salvador Illa told parliament. "A glimpse of hope: the curve has stabilized. We have reached ... the peak of the curve and we have started the slowdown phase."

In Britain, police cracked down on coronavirus-related crime after a spate of thefts and attacks on emergency workers involved in battling the outbreak.

A 23-year-old man was jailed for 12 months in Burnley for spitting at two officers after claiming he was infected. In London, a 55-year-old man was jailed for six months for coughing on a police officer. And a 35-year-old man was sentenced to six months in jail for stealing personal protective equipment, including face masks, from an ambulance near a hospital.

Cases in Singapore have now reached 1,000 - including four deaths - with the numbers growing steadily due to a rise in both infections brought in from overseas and local transmissions.

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