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Will we know how many people have died from covid-19 in China?

Tonhe waved The covid-19 that recently swept through China appears to have weakened. More than 80% of the population has contracted the virus in the past two months, the government said. The number of new cases is falling. On Jan. 10, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China’s COVID-19 policy “could stand the test of history.” “We have protected people’s lives and health to the greatest extent possible.”

Official figures back up Mr Wang’s claims. Around 5,000 people died at the start of the pandemic in 2020, before strict “zero covid” controls in China, the government said. Over the next three years, very few Chinese contracted the virus. An additional 80,000 people died after the zero-virus policy was lifted in December, according to the state. By this calculation, China fared better than other countries in the Omicron virus wave (see chart).

But make no mistake, the Chinese data are misleading. Doctors reported they were forced to leave covid on death certificates. People who die at home are not counted by the country at all. Reports of overwhelmed hospitals and crematoria point to a much higher death toll. China is ill-prepared for this wave. Many elderly people are not fully vaccinated, and COVID-19 drugs are in short supply.

economistHis own modeling predicts that between 1 million and 1.5 million people will die from Covid-19 in that wave if the virus spreads unimpeded in China. At a forum on Dec. 17, Wu Zunyou of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said the case-fatality rate of the Omicron variant prevalent in China was about 0.1%. That would mean a series of deaths that fit our model. “My starting point is 1 million deaths,” said Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.

Chinese officials would not like to hear such remarks. They spent months shaming over 1 million deaths from covid-19 in the US. “This proves the irresponsibility and incompetence of American politicians in anti-epidemic measures,” the newspaper commented. People’s Daily, Party Mouthpiece, Oct. State television routinely points to the death toll from COVID-19 in Western countries as justification for a brutal lockdown at home. Even if China publishes a death toll from COVID-19 that matches independent estimates, its propaganda apparatus can still boast far fewer deaths per 100,000 people than the U.S. and other Western countries.

China said it would eventually publish estimates of the “excess death toll”: the difference between the number of people who died during the outbreak, regardless of the cause, and the number of deaths that were originally projected. In theory, this would include undiagnosed COVID-19 deaths and deaths from overwhelmed health services. But experts doubt that figure reflects reality.

In general, Chinese life goes on. Many returned home for the Lunar New Year holiday last month. Factory activity picked up in January as workers quickly shrugged off infections. But some of the bereaved are angry. “They’re basically sending old people to die,” said a woman whose grandmother died. She won’t wait for the country to release more data: “I don’t believe what the government says.”

Subscribers can sign up to our new weekly newsletter, The Drum Tower, to learn how the world shapes China — and how China shapes the world. Stories about the pandemic can be found in our Coronavirus Hub.

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