China reports 60,000 Covid-related deaths since early December

The toll is the first to be released since Beijing begin dismantling strict controls to contain the spread of infections

Travellers ride on the escalator at the West Railway Station in Beijing. AP Photo
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China recorded nearly 60,000 coronavirus-related deaths since restrictions were lifted in early December, the national health authority said after repeated requests from the World Health Organisation for updates on its pandemic situation.

The update follows reports of overcrowded hospitals and packed crematoriums in past weeks, even as the government released little data about the status of the outbreak.

The numbers released on Saturday by the National Health Commission may still understate the toll, although the government said the “emergency peak” of its latest surge appears to have passed.

The toll includes 5,503 deaths from respiratory failure caused by Covid-19 and 54,435 fatalities from other ailments combined with Covid-19 since December 8, the commission said. It said the deaths occurred in hospitals, which means that Covid-19 patients who died at home were not included in the numbers.

The WHO said it was analysing the latest data but urged China to share more detailed information, including on sub-variants circulating throughout the nation.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated the importance of China’s greater co-operation and transparency in talks with NHC director Ma Xiaowei, according to a statement on Saturday.

The update more than doubles China’s official Covid-19 death toll to 10,775 since the disease was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019. China has counted only deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official Covid-19 death toll, a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that would be attributed to the virus in much of the world.

China stopped reporting data on Covid-19 deaths and infections after abruptly lifting anti-virus controls in early December following protests against the government's strict lockdown and testing regime. Hospitals across the country have since been overwhelmed with patients, and funeral homes and crematoriums have struggled to handle the dead.

The WHO and governments appealed for information after reports by city and provincial governments suggested as many as hundreds of millions of people in China might have contracted the virus.

Infection numbers now appear to be falling based on a decline in the number of patients visiting fever clinics, NHC official Jiao Yahui said.

The daily number of people going to those clinics peaked at 2.9 million on December 23 and had fallen by 83 per cent to to 477,000 on Thursday, according to Ms Jiao.

“These data show the national emergency peak has passed,” she said at a news conference.

However, an expected surge in travel ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday beginning on January 21, when hundreds of millions of people return home from cities to small towns and rural areas, has fuelled worries about more infections.

For nearly three years, China had kept its infection rate and deaths far lower than those of the US and some other countries at the height of the pandemic with a “zero-Covid” strategy that aimed to isolate every case. That shut down access to some cities, kept millions of people at home and sparked angry protests.

Those rules were suddenly eased in early December after some of the largest shows of public dissent against the ruling Communist Party in more than 30 years. That set off new problems in a country that relies on domestically developed vaccines that are less reliable than others used globally, and where older people — those more susceptible to dying from the virus — are less likely to be vaccinated than the general population.

The Health Commission said the average age of people who died since December 8 was 80.3 years, and 90.1 per cent were over 65. More than 90 per cent of people who died had cancer, heart or lung diseases or kidney problems, it said.

“The number of elderly patients dying from illness is relatively large, which suggests that we should pay more attention to elderly patients and try our best to save their lives,” Ms Jiao said.

The US, South Korea, Japan, India and several other countries in Europe and the Middle East have imposed virus testing and other controls on people arriving from China. Beijing responded on Wednesday by suspending the issue of new visas to travellers from South Korea and Japan.

With reporting from agencies

Updated: January 15, 2023, 12:54 PM