Families of COVID Victims Allege Chat Groups Were Shut Down After World Health Org. Arrived in Wuhan

The families of COVID-19 victims in China allege that their chat groups were shut down shortly after the World Health Organization (WHO) arrived in Wuhan to investigate the origins of the new coronavirus.

"Don't pretend that we don't exist, that we aren't seeking accountability," Zhang Hai, whose father died of COVID-19 in February told the Associated Press.

Zhang, a native of Wuhan who is currently living in Shenzhen, told the AP that he has been assembling relatives of those who died from COVID-19 in an effort to demand accountability from Chinese officials. While speaking with the AP, Zhang said that chat groups between these relatives of COVID-19 victims were shut down after the expert team of WHO researchers arrived in Wuhan and accused the city's government of trying to silence these families.

"You obliterated all our platforms, but we still want to let everyone know through the media that we haven't given up," he added.

Zhang's comments come shortly after the Chinese government permitted a team of WHO expert researchers to conduct field work in Wuhan in hopes to find out how the virus spread across the country and the world.

Similar demands for an investigation into the origins of the virus were previously rejected by China, after former President Donald Trump's administration blamed Beijing for the virus, but the Chinese government eventually agreed to requests from the WHO.

The WHO team arrived in Wuhan on January 14, after months of negotiations with the Chinese government, and will begin their research after they finish a 14-day quarantine later this week.

According to the AP, many Wuhan residents felt that the city's government attempted to downplay the severity of the virus and have attempted to file lawsuits, but they have been met with strong opposition, with officials dismissing the lawsuits and threatening others who speak to foreign media.

Zhang is demanding that the expert team of WHO researchers meet with these families who claim they are being silenced by the government.

Members of the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic board a bus following their arrival at a cordoned-off section in the international arrivals area at the airport in Wuhan on January 14. Nicolas Asfouri/Getty

"I hope the WHO experts don't become a tool to spread lies," Zhang told the AP. "We've been searching for the truth relentlessly. This was a criminal act, and I don't want the WHO to be coming to China to cover up these crimes."

In an email sent to Newsweek, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, Yaqiu Wang wrote, "By creating all sorts of obstacles for the WHO to do an investigation in China, the Chinese government has made it abundant clear that it has no interest in being transparent and finding the origin of the virus so to prevent the next pandemic."

"On the other hand, the WHO needs to respond to the meeting requests from the Chinese citizens who lost their loved ones to the virus. If the experts are unable to meet them due to the Chinese government's interference, the WHO should public condemn such interference. Acquiescence and appeasement have so far obviously failed to yield any better access or meaningful cooperation from Chinese authorities," the email said.

This is not the first time China has been accused of suppressing information and attempting to step residents from sharing information on the virus.

In February, NPR reported that thousands of WeChat accounts were shut off, stopping communication between many family and friends who used the social media app to communicate after being ordered to stay indoors.

Additionally, in June, the AP obtained internal WHO documents and audio recordings, which showed the U.N. agency criticizing China for delaying the release of information on the virus, despite praising the country's response in public.

During the audio recording of one meeting, which was obtained by the AP, WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said, "We're going on very minimal information," and added that "It's clearly not enough for you to do proper planning."

Newsweek reached out to the Chinese Foreign Ministry for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Updated January 15, 2021,11:19 a.m. ET, to include a statement from Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch.