China Covid deaths top 12,600, more than 1.1 billion infected

Chinese paramilitary police stand guard at Beijing West Railway Station in Beijing, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. China in December lifted its strict “zero-COVID” policy, letting loose a wave of pent-up travel desire, particularly around China’s most important time for family gatherings, referred to in China as the Spring Festival, that may be the only time in the year when urban workers return to their hometowns. (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

China said its Covid-related death toll topped more than 12,600 in the week before the Lunar New Year holiday, while a top health official suggested more than 1.1 billion people had been infected since virus controls were abruptly dismantled late last year.  

There were 12,658 Covid-linked deaths at hospitals between Jan. 13-19, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement dated Saturday. A week earlier, the country reported 59,938 such deaths for the period December 8-January 12.

The data comes after China came under fire for dramatically narrowing its definition of a Covid death and halting daily caseload reports. The World Health Organization has urged Beijing to release more detailed information on the country’s Covid situation as the virus spreads rapidly throughout China after the sudden lifting of extensive Covid Zero restrictions. 

Visitors wearing face masks tour a pedestrian shopping street at Qianmen on the first day of the Lunar New Year holiday in Beijing, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023. People across China rang in the Lunar New Year on Sunday with large family gatherings and crowds visiting temples after the government lifted its strict “zero-COVID” policy, marking the biggest festive celebration since the pandemic began three years ago. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

China now appears to be trying to appease those concerns by reporting on deaths that fall outside the narrowed definition, which only counts fatalities from infected people with respiratory failure. Even so, the numbers China is now revealing still present just a partial picture given they count only deaths at hospitals, ignoring those that occur at home and in aged-care facilities. The true toll could be hundreds of thousands higher given the extent of the outbreak and mortality rates in other countries. 

Separately, the China CDC’s chief epidemiologist, Wu Zunyou, said in a Weibo post at the weekend that 80 percent of the population have been infected in the current outbreak. China had a population of 1.41 billion at the end of 2022, suggesting more than 1.1 billion people have contracted the virus so far. 

Wu didn’t elaborate on how the figure was calculated, given the country’s vast testing apparatus—once key to maintaining Covid Zero—has been dismantled. 

While travel during the Lunar New Year holiday period, currently under way, may lead to an uptick in cases in some regions, Wu said there is “very little chance” for large-scale infections or a second nationwide outbreak in the next two to three months. 

Chinese officials have been eagerly pushing the view that the current Covid outbreak has peaked as they look to encourage a fast economic rebound after about three years of crippling restrictions and lockdowns. The economy grew just 3 percent last year, the second-slowest pace since the 1970s. 

Vice Premier Liu He last week told the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, that growth will rebound to pre-pandemic levels after infections passed their peak. Outgoing Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who once was synonymous with the country’s hardline pandemic approach, last week said infections have fallen to a “relatively low” level. 

Chinese families visit to Qianmen pedestrian shopping street on the first day of the Lunar New Year holiday in Beijing, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023. People across China rang in the Lunar New Year on Sunday with large family gatherings and crowds visiting temples after the government lifted its strict “zero-COVID” policy, marking the biggest festive celebration since the pandemic began three years ago. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Concern over rural spread

Still, there are signs the ruling Communist Party are concerned about the virus spreading into parts of the country less resourced than the major cities when it comes to hospitals and medical supplies. 

President Xi Jinping singled out Covid’s rural spread in a nationwide video address before the New Year holiday, saying he’s especially concerned about efforts to battle the virus in the countryside. Experts are worried Covid could ravage vulnerable people in villages that have sparse health care infrastructure, with the reopening wave already leading to overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums in the major cities. 

There are only 1.62 doctors and nurses combined for every 1,000 people in rural China, compared to rates of 2.9 and 3.3 nationally. Access to intensive care with experienced doctors and equipment like ventilators to help gravely ill patients survive is often miles away.

Holiday expectations—which typically fall in winter and see millions of people travel home to their villages and towns—will supercharge the spread of infections. Predicative health analytics firm Airfinity Ltd. raised its estimate for Chinese Covid deaths to 36,000 a day, an increase of 11,000 every 24 hours from a previous forecast, after taking into account travel during holiday.

Image credits: AP/Mark Schiefelbein



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