China has swiftly censored a rare state media article questioning the official Covid-19-related death toll in the country, amid growing anecdotal evidence, social media reports and footage of overwhelmed hospitals and rising fatalities as the epidemic spreads unchecked, ticking off city after city.
The report was published online by state-run news portal Sixth Tone, which concerned the death of celebrity actor Wang Jinsong’s mother and cited people’s responses to his social media post, which reflected growing scepticism within the public of the true nature of the outbreak. The post was deleted soon after.
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“The death of a Chinese celebrity’s mother from Covid-19 has put the spotlight on the vulnerability of older people to the disease and questions the extent of casualties caused by the coronavirus, as it spreads unchecked across the country,” the Sixth Tone report said.
“Responding to the actor’s post on microblogging platform Weibo, many shared their experience of witnessing older family members die in recent days, even though death certificates didn’t attribute their deaths to Covid,” the article added.
Only six people have officially died of Covid-19 since most restrictions, including mass tests and centralised quarantine under China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy, were abruptly lifted on December 7, giving the highly transmissible Omicron variant a free run among a billion Chinese who mostly have inadequate immunity.
China reported no new Covid-19 deaths for December 22, the national health commission said on Friday, adding that the country reported 3,761 new symptomatic infections — numbers that are now unreliable given the spread of the outbreak.
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New estimates released this week by independent researchers suggested the country could be in reality recording 5,000 deaths and at least a million new infections a day, with the wave not expected to peak at least till mid-January. The assessment, by UK-based Airfinity, also called out China’s decision to change the definition of a Covid-death to include only those who died of respiratory distress after testing positive.
The number of “six” deaths from Covid-19 has evoked disbelief among experts — as well as Chinese citizens — given that China has hundreds of millions of senior citizens, many of them unvaccinated, who are most vulnerable to the raging outbreak.
Reports said younger people, those below 60 years, have also succumbed to the disease.
The death of a 37-year-old footballer, for one, has not been included in the list of official deaths but he died after contracting Covid-19.
Earlier this week, China narrowed the definition of Covid deaths, classifying only fatalities caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure among patients as Covid deaths.
It has been interpreted as an effort by Beijing to keep the actual death count low.
“A mortician surnamed Zhao from the northeastern Liaoning province told Sixth Tone that the mortuary where he works has reached full capacity and is understaffed following a surge of people coming in with dead relatives in the past two days.”
The Sixth Tone article raised questions — raised only by international media so far — dutifully avoided by China’s official media.
“…many are starting to question the timing of the easing of the “zero-Covid” policy, which was marked by mass testing, quarantine, and lockdowns. Over the past two weeks, the surge in infections has triggered a series of disruptions in the country, including drug shortages, overstretched logistics, and weak consumption.”
Shanghai-based infectious disease expert Zhang Wenhong has said China’s infection peak may come within a week.
“But the infection peak may come within a week, which may bring more severe cases and impact medical resources in the city,” Zhang was quoted as saying by the state-run Global Times tabloid.
“China has given very few vaccines since about February this year and consequently most of the protection against infection will now have been lost. Because the Chinese population until recently have not seen much infection, very few people will have got hybrid immunity and so a lot of the protection against severe disease will also have been lost now,” Paul R Hunter, professor in Medicine at the Norwich School of Medicine, University of East Anglia, England, said.
“So, in my view China’s problem now is not because they lifted the restrictions too soon but because they maintained zero covid policy too long after the vaccination campaign so that the protective effect of the vaccination has been largely lost,” Hunter added
“Compare this to New Zealand who lifted their restrictions soon after the vaccination campaign and got away with few deaths even though there was a surge in infections as expected,” Hunter said.