Relatives of Wuhan’s coronavirus dead have said Chinese authorities deleted their social media group and told them to keep quiet while a World Health Organization team was in the city preparing to begin an investigation into the pandemic’s origins.
Scores of people had banded together online in a shared quest for accountability from Wuhan officials who they blame for mishandling the Covid-19 outbreak that tore through the city a year ago, and caused more than 4,000 officially recorded deaths.
Many relatives of those who died distrust the official death toll, saying the scarcity of testing during the outbreak’s chaotic early days meant many were likely to have died without being confirmed as having coronavirus.
The quest for accountability has thus far been thwarted by official obstruction, monitoring of social media groups and intimidation, say families of the dead.
The suppression of the Wuhan relatives’ group follows calls by some for the WHO team to meet with them, including Zhang Hai, whose father died from Covid-19 on 1 February after travelling to Wuhan and becoming infected.
“I hope the WHO experts don’t become a tool to spread lies,” said Hai. “We’ve been searching for the truth relentlessly,” he said. “This was a criminal act, and I don’t want the WHO to come to China to cover up these crimes.
“Don’t pretend that we don’t exist, that we aren’t seeking accountability,” he added. “You obliterated all our platforms, but we still want to let everyone know through the media that we haven’t given up.”
Since the beginning of the outbreak China has pursued whistleblowers and critics of its handling of the coronavirus crisis as Beijing has sought to suggest the virus could have had its origins outside the country.
The crackdown has escalated since the WHO investigative team arrived in Wuhan on 14 January, the Chinese authorities appearing keen to avoid embarrassment during the highly sensitive visit.
The WHO mission was repeatedly delayed by negotiations and setbacks, one of which prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of the organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
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, Hai said.
Many, like Hai, are angry how the Chinese authorities played down the threat of the virus at the beginning of the outbreak, and have attempted to file lawsuits against the Wuhan government.
“This shows that [Chinese authorities] are very nervous. They are afraid that these families will get in touch with the WHO experts,” said 51-year-old, adding: “When the WHO arrived in Wuhan, [authorities] forcibly demolished [the group]. As a result we have lost contact with many members,.”
The WHO experts are due to emerge from a 14-day quarantine on Thursday, when their keenly watched investigation is meant to start under what is expected to be tight security.
Reflecting the diplomatic sensitivity of the mission, team members told the Guardian earlier this month that the investigation was not intended to be an exercise in “blame and finger pointing” but to establish what lessons could be learned in researching the origins of the outbreak.
Besides Hai, other next of kin of the dead confirmed the deletion of the chart group. WeChat is operated by Chinese digital group Tencent.
Relatives accuse the Wuhan and Hubei provincial governments of allowing Covid-19 to get out of control by trying to conceal the outbreak when it first emerged in Wuhan in December 2019, then failing to alert the public and bungling the response.
While China has broadly controlled the pandemic on its soil, it has frustrated independent attempts to trace its origins.
Another family member, who says her adult daughter died of the virus last January, told Agence France-Presse 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 [£564] in a ‘condolence payment’”, she added, requesting anonymity.
Coronavirus 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.
The origin issue, however, became highly politicised by the Trump administration as part of wider tensions between the US and China over trade and other issues which pushed claims, without any hard evidence, that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory studying it in the city.
The campaign of pressure on relatives is consistent with China’s approach which saw it discipline the whistleblowing Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, who died of the disease, for alerting colleagues to a new Sars-like illness.