Almost 60,000 people have died of Covid in Chinese hospitals since early December when the country relaxed its strict lockdown restrictions, authorities have announced.
A major wave of the virus has gripped the country after President Xi Jinping abruptly lifted zero-Covid policy restrictions last month. It is estimated that some major cities have experienced infection rates of between 70% and 90% of their populations since then.
The surge in infections has been blamed on the Chinese government’s emphasis on shielding the 1.4 billion people that make up its population rather than inoculating them effectively against the Covid-19 virus.
Reports of deaths on social media and long queues at morgues and crematoriums have suggested a high death toll, but until Saturday authorities had only officially recorded a few dozen Covid-19 fatalities.
The shortfall in reported numbers was due to stringent definitions of how a death is attributed to Covid in China. Only people who died of respiratory failure were counted. The World Health Organization last week criticised the new definition as too narrow and warned that it was an under-representation of the true impact of the outbreak. But Chinese authorities responded that it was not necessary to attribute every death to Covid.
However, Jiao Yahui, the head of the Bureau of Medical Administration, on Saturday announced there had in fact been 59,938 Covid deaths between 8 December and 12 January. This figure included about 5,500 individuals who died of respiratory failure, while the rest also had underlying health conditions. The average age of those who died was 80, Jiao said, with 90.1% aged 65 and above.
The death toll includes only those who died in hospital and is probably still lower than the true total, while there have been major concerns about a further spread of the virus before the lunar new year holiday, which begins next week. The holidays in China officially start on 21 January and involve the world’s largest annual migration of people. Some 2bn trips are expected to be made and tens of millions of people have started to travel – although they have been urged not to visit their elderly relatives, in order to prevent them becoming infected.
Jiao claimed case rates were declining and the peak had passed in most areas. She said the daily number of people going to fever clinics peaked at 2.9 million on 23 December and had fallen by 83% to 477,000 on Thursday. “These data show the national emergency peak has passed,” she said.
China’s government has been under criticism from other governments and the World Health Organization over its lack of transparency. It stopped publishing most infection data after the sharp rise began, and the WHO condemned it for heavily under-reporting the number of people who had become infected with Covid-19 and who had been taken seriously ill with complications triggered by the virus.
Several countries have introduced travel restrictions or mandatory testing on incoming people from China, prompting some retaliatory measures from Beijing against Japan and South Korea.
China’s problems have also been exacerbated because it has only allowed domestically produced vaccines to be given to its citizens. Health experts and medical studies have raised concerns about the efficacy of China’s vaccines, which use an inactivated virus, compared with the mRNA vaccines – such as the one produced by BioNTech/Pfizer – which are available elsewhere.
The lifting of travel restrictions has also led to a jump in services offering trips to Hong Kong and Macau, where the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine is free to residents. Clinics in Thailand and Singapore have also reported increased interest from Chinese travellers.