Coronavirus cases have increased in China after the nation loosened its strict “zero-COVID” policy, but Chinese officials are likely underestimating the numbers of COVID-19 deaths, a World Health Organization official says.
The abrupt end of China’s contentious zero-COVID strategy caught the country’s frail health system off guard, with hospitals scrambling for beds, pharmacies scrambling for drugs, and authorities racing to build special clinics.
A senior World Health Organization official said on Thursday that China may be struggling to keep track of COVID-19 infections due to an increase in cases. According to experts, China could face more than a million COVID-19 deaths next year.
COVID-19 Deaths In China Remains A Mystery
Despite evidence of overcrowded hospitals and crematoriums, the Chinese government has reported fewer than ten COVID-19 deaths in the last two weeks. With one of the world’s lowest COVID-19 death tolls, China has been accused of exaggerating infections and deaths for political reasons.
A June 2020 study of the country’s initial outbreak in Wuhan, which began in late 2019, estimated 36,000 deaths – ten times the official figure.
According to a study published in the Lancet in April that looked at COVID-related mortality in 74 countries and territories from 2020 to 2021, there were 17,900 excess deaths in China during that time period, compared to an official death toll of 4,820.
Globally, the study estimated 18.2 million excess deaths in 2021-2022, compared to 5.94 million reported COVID-19 deaths. China actually reduced its death toll by one on December 20, bringing the total to 5,241.
The National Health Commission of China did not respond immediately to requests for comment on the country’s COVID-19 statistics and excess mortality.
Even if China continues to define COVID-19 deaths broadly, the official data is unlikely to reflect the situation on the ground, given how quickly infections are now spreading, according to Chen Jiming, a medical researcher at China’s Foshan University.
WHO Doubts China’s Transparency
Following the removal of most restrictions last month, there has been an increase in cases. However, China has stopped publishing daily case data and has only announced 22 COVID-19 deaths since December, based on its own stringent criteria.
“We believe that definition [of a COVID death] is too narrow,” said WHO’s director of emergencies, Dr. Michael Ryan.
Dr. Ryan said China’s figures “under-represent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions, in terms of ICU admissions, and particularly in terms of deaths”.
China changed its definition of a COVID-19 death last month, so only those who die from respiratory illnesses are counted. This is contrary to WHO recommendations, which encourage countries to count the number of excess deaths – how many more people die than would be expected based on death figures prior to the pandemic.
Dr. Ryan went on to say that China’s engagement with the WHO had increased in recent weeks and that he was looking forward to receiving “more comprehensive data.”
Despite the increase in cases, no new COVID-19 variants have been discovered in China. The WHO, however, has warned that this could be due to a decrease in testing.