Relatives of Wuhan's coronavirus dead on Wednesday said Chinese authorities have deleted their social media group and are pressuring them to keep quiet while a World Health Organization team is in the city to investigate the pandemic's origins.

Wuhan next-of-kin say China silencing them as WHO visits

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by Leo Ramirez, with Dan Martin in Shanghai

Relatives of Wuhan’s coronavirus dead on Wednesday said Chinese authorities have deleted their social media group and are pressuring them to keep quiet while a World Health Organization team is in the city to investigate the pandemic’s origins.

Scores of relatives 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 one year ago.

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

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

A group on social media platform WeChat 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 pandemic of suspected Covid-19.

The WHO experts arrived in Wuhan on January 14 and are due to emerge from a 14-day quarantine on Thursday.

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

Other next-of-kin confirmed the group’s deletion. WeChat is operated by Chinese digital giant Tencent.

Popular platforms routinely censor content deemed objectionable by the government.

– ‘Same old tune’ –

Relatives accuse the Wuhan and Hubei provincial 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.

According to official Chinese figures, it killed nearly 3,900 in Wuhan, accounting for the vast majority of the 4,636 dead China has reported.

Many next-of-kin distrust those numbers, saying the scarcity of testing in the outbreak’s chaotic early days meant many are likely to have died without being confirmed as having the disease.

More than two million people have died so far globally.

While China has broadly controlled the pandemic on its soil, it has frustrated independent attempts to trace its origins.

Instead, it has sought to deflect blame for the horrific worldwide human and economic toll by suggesting, without proof, that it emerged elsewhere.

A team of WHO virus experts were finally allowed into Wuhan a fortnight ago.

Their highly watched probe into the virus origins is due to start on Thursday, under tight security.

Another family member, a retiree who says her adult daughter died of the virus last January, told AFP she was summoned last week 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 ($775) in a ‘condolence payment'”, she added, requesting anonymity.

– Official obstruction –

The Communist Party government smothers anything that reflects its governance in a poor light, and the early days of the outbreak remain among the most sensitive topics in China today.

Several Wuhan relatives have tried to file lawsuits seeking compensation and punishment of officials, but say courts have refused to accept them.

The Wuhan government has repeatedly failed to reply to AFP queries regarding the families and their demands.

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.

He said the families’ hard-earned knowledge of how the virus played out could aid the investigation, though he acknowledges such a meeting is highly unlikely.

The virus is believed to have emerged from bats and to have initially spread from a wet market in Wuhan where wild animals were sold as food.

But little else is known.

Another theory, amplified by former US President Donald Trump, is that it leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan where researchers were studying coronaviruses. Agence France-Presse

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May parusa ‘pag umayaw! AFP requires soldiers to be vaccinated vs COVID-19

MANILA – The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Thursday said coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) inoculation is mandatory for all of its personnel but they have the option to choose among vaccine brands other than Sinovac at their own expense.

“Thus, to get inoculated or not is not an option for the members of the AFP, it is a duty. At the most, the exercise of an option will be the option to as to what brand of vaccine they will be availing of, but the cost of which will not be paid by the AFP,” AFP spokesperson, Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in an online press briefing.

Malacañang earlier announced that the first batch of Sinovac Biotech vaccines composed of 600,000 doses donated by China is set to arrive on Sunday (Feb. 28), with 100,000 doses of which will be given to the Department of National Defense, the AFP’s mother agency.

Aside from military personnel, Arevalo added that their chief-of-staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana has said that their dependents must be vaccinated.

Meanwhile, those opting for other vaccine brands who decided to forego their inoculation can do so but once they are called to duty to serve as front-liners, they will have no choice but to follow.

“They must perform their duties and task but they will have to resort to the traditional health protocol, mag-mask, mag-shield, maghugas ng kamay at mag-maintain ng social distance pansamantala habang hindi pa sila natuturukan ng vaccine na pinipili nila (like the wearing of mask, face shields, regularly washing their hands, and maintaining social distance while they are yet to be vaccinated with the brand of their choice),” Arevalo said.

Meanwhile, said AFP personnel assigned and performing duties that will expose them to Covid-19 patients are required to have themselves vaccinated with the available vaccines.

He added that the AFP will play three major roles in the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine — security, medical and logistics support operations. (PNA)

Payag ba sa barter? Bello waiting for UK’s response to PH offer to deploy more healthcare workers

MANILA – The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) is waiting for the response of the United Kingdom (UK) on its proposed provision of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) vaccine amid UK’s request for an exemption from the deployment cap of Filipino healthcare workers (HCWs).

In a telephone interview on Thursday, DOLE Secretary Silvestre Bello III said they expect the UK government to respond on the issue within 10 days.

“I told them for me to be able to recommend it to the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases), I have to be assured of the safety of our workers. The only way we can be assured about the safety of our OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) is (through) the vaccine,” he said.

Bello said the UK may want to send the coronavirus vaccines so the country can immunize the nurses before they are deployed.

“For us to be able to send our medical workers, we want to ensure that they are safe and their health is secured. We don’t have the vaccine, if they want, they can send us (vaccine),” he added.

Bello said he did not provide specific quantities of the vaccines.

“Why not include all OFWs and not just HCWs. In case they are ready to give us the vaccines, I will give them the number of OFWs that will be vaccinated. I just want to be sure that those who will be deployed have received the vaccine,” he added.

The Philippine government is asking the UK and Germany to provide vaccines against Covid-19 for OFWs as part of the agreement in relation to the deployment of health service workers, particularly nurses.

The country has two bilateral agreements with the UK in 2002 and 2003.

The UK and Germany are seeking to be exempted from the 5,000 cap on the deployment of nurses being implemented by the government to ensure there is an adequate number of nurses in the country in case the need arises.

Meanwhile, Bello said he understands the reaction of the people on the issue.

“They thought I would barter our nurses with the vaccine. I just hope that before they accuse me, they should have asked me first and look at what really happened. They just criticized and what they are saying is not true,” he added. (PNA)

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