- Beijing reports two deaths, the first since December 3
- After Beijing relaxed anti-virus controls
- Citizens and analysts doubt the official figures
- The virus surge is weighing on the world’s second-largest economy
Beijing, December 19 (Reuters) – China reported its first COVID-related deaths in weeks on Monday, raising doubts about the official tally of the urban disease’s toll after the government eased strict anti-virus controls. .
Monday’s two deaths were the first reported by the National Health Commission (NHC) since December 3, days before Beijing announced it was lifting restrictions that had largely brought the virus under control for three years but sparked widespread protests last month.
Although on Saturday, Reuters reporters saw hearses lined up outside a designated COVID-19 crematorium in Beijing and workers in hazmat suits transporting the dead inside. Reuters could not immediately determine whether the cause of death was COVID.
A hashtag about the two reported deaths from COVID quickly became a trending topic on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo on Monday.
“What’s the point of incomplete statistics?” asked one user. “Isn’t this cheating the public?” wrote another.
The NHC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The low number of deaths since curbs were lifted on December 7 is at odds with the experience of other countries following similar moves. Officially, China has suffered only 5,237 COVID-related deaths during the pandemic, including the two most recent deaths, a tiny fraction of its 1.4 billion population.
But health experts said China could pay a price for such strict measures to protect a population that now lacks natural immunity to COVID-19 and vaccination rates among the elderly are low.
Some fear that China’s COVID death toll could rise above 1.5 million in the coming months.
Respected Chinese news outlet Caixin reported on Friday that two state media journalists had died of COVID-19, while a 23-year-old medical student also died on Saturday. It was not immediately clear which of those deaths were included in the official death toll.
“The (official) number clearly understates the number of deaths from COVID,” said Yanzhong Huang, global health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank.
This “may reflect a lack of state capacity to effectively track and monitor the disease situation following the collapse of the massive PCR testing regime, but it may also reflect an effort to avoid mass panic over the surge in COVID deaths.” He said.
The NHC reported 1,995 symptomatic infections on December 18, up from 2,097 a day earlier.
But infection rates have also become an unreliable guide, with far fewer mandatory PCR tests following recent easing. The NHC stopped reporting asymptomatic cases last week, citing a drop in testing.
Chinese shares fell and the yuan weakened against the dollar on Monday as investors worried that a rising number of COVID-19 cases would further strain the world’s second-largest economy, despite government pledges.
The virus has been spreading on trading floors in Beijing and spreading rapidly in the financial center of Shanghai, while illness and absences have thinned already thin trading and forced regulators to cancel a weekly meeting that scrutinizes public sales of shares.
Japanese chipmaker Renesas Electronics Corp ( 6723.T ) said on Monday it had suspended work at its Beijing factory due to COVID-19 infections.
Chinese business confidence fell to its lowest level since 2013 in December, a survey by World Economics showed on Monday. January China’s economy is expected to grow by 3 percent this year, the worst performance in nearly half a century.
China’s chief epidemiologist, Wu Zunyou, said on Saturday that the country was being hit by the first of three expected waves of COVID-19 this winter, more in line with what people said they were experiencing on the ground.
“I would say 60-70% of my colleagues … are infected right now,” Liu, a 37-year-old canteen worker at Peking University, told Reuters, asking not to be identified by his last name.
Beijing city official Xu Hejian told reporters on Monday that COVID is spreading rapidly in the capital and putting pressure on medical resources. However, more restrictions will be lifted, allowing previously closed underground venues to reopen, from bars to Internet cafes, Xu said.
Xu did not comment on any deaths.
Beijing will speed up imports of anti-COVID drugs because of shortages in the city’s pharmacies, another official said. read more
While top officials have downplayed the threat posed by the Omicron strain of the virus in recent weeks, authorities remain concerned about elderly people who have refused to get vaccinated.
Vaccination rates in China are more than 90 percent, according to government data, but the rate drops to 57.9 percent of adults who have been revaccinated, and to 42.3 percent of those 80 and older.
State news agency Xinhua reported that medical workers are going door-to-door in Beijing’s Shijingshan district offering to vaccinate elderly residents.
Reporting by Liz Lee, Martin Quin Pollard, Eduardo Baptista, Ethan Wang and Ryan Woo in Beijing and David Kirton in Shenzhen; By John Geddie and Marius Zaharia; Edited by Simon Cameron-Moore
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.