BEIJING (AP) — China’s health authorities on Monday announced two additional COVID-19 deaths, both in the capital Beijing, reported for the first time in weeks and came amid an expected surge in illness after the country’s strict “zero- COVID” had relaxed. approach.
China had not reported any deaths from COVID-19 since December 4, although unofficial reports of a new wave of cases are rife.
With the latest reported deaths, the National Health Commission raised China’s total to 5,237 deaths from COVID-19 in the past three years, from 380,453 cases — numbers far lower than other major countries, but also based on statistics and information-gathering methods that have been questioned.
Chinese health authorities are only counting those who have died directly from COVID-19, excluding people whose underlying conditions such as diabetes and heart disease have been exacerbated by the virus.
In many other countries, guidelines state that any death where the coronavirus is a factor or contributor is counted as a COVID-19 related death.
The announcement comes amid testimonies from family members and people working in the funeral industry who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation, saying deaths from COVID-19 were on the rise.
China has long touted its tough “zero COVID” approach to keeping cases and deaths relatively low — compared to the US, where the death toll has passed 1.1 million.
Yet the policies of lockdowns, travel restrictions, mandatory testing and quarantines placed enormous strain on Chinese society and the national economy, apparently convincing the ruling Communist Party to heed outside advice and change its strategy.
The easing began in November and accelerated after Beijing and several other cities saw protests over the restrictions morph into calls for President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down — a level of public discord not seen in decades.
On Wednesday, the government said it would stop reporting asymptomatic COVID-19 cases as they have become impossible to track as mass testing is no longer necessary. Most tests are now done privately, with those showing only mild symptoms able to recover at home without being forced into a centralized quarantine center.
The lack of data has made it more difficult to understand the size of the outbreak or its direction. However, a sharp drop in economic activity and anecdotal evidence of the spread of the virus point to a growing caseload, while health experts predict a potentially large wave of new infections and a spike in deaths over the next two months, especially among the elderly.
China is trying to persuade reluctant seniors and others at risk to get vaccinated, apparently with only moderate success. The other major concern is strengthening health resources in smaller towns and the vast rural hinterland ahead of the lunar new year travel rush in January, which will see migrant workers return to their hometowns.
The number of fever clinics has expanded in both urban and rural areas and people have been asked to stay at home unless they are seriously ill to conserve resources. Hospitals are also short on staff, and reports say workers have been asked to return to their posts as long as they are not feverish.