China is changing how it counts Covid deaths as crematoriums fill up


For much of the pandemic, images of packed hospitals and packed funeral homes from the United States have featured heavily on state-controlled Chinese television, where the deaths of more than a million Americans from Covid have been portrayed as a fiasco of Western democracy.

Now, as a An unprecedented wave of infections through rips ChinaState media willfully ignore scenes of crowded hospital wards and overcrowded crematoriums unfolding at home, while officials insist that by the government’s count, few people are dying of Covid.

For nearly three years, China’s hardline no-Covid policy has protected its population from the kind of mass deaths that haunt Western countries — a contradiction that the Communist Party has repeatedly pushed home. Clarify assumed superiority of her rule.

But as China abruptly abandons that strategy, with little warning or apparent willingness, the possibility of a higher death toll — which some studies have projected will be up to a million – It has become a thorny issue for a government that bet its legitimacy on “saving lives”.

Officially, China has reported just eight deaths from Covid this month — a staggeringly low number given the rapid spread of the virus and relatively low vaccine rates among its frail elderly.

The official tally was met with disbelief and derision online, with posts abounding mourning loved ones dying of Covid. Caixin, a Chinese financial magazine known for its investigative articles, reported the deaths of two veteran state media journalists with Covid, on days when the official death toll was zero.

Other social media posts described the frustration of many trying to obtain a hearing and the difficulty of securing a place for cremation at a funeral home.

When CNN visited a major crematorium in Beijing on Tuesday, the parking lot was completely full, with a long line of cars zipping around the crematorium waiting to get in. Smoke continually rose from the furnaces, while yellow body bags piled up inside metal containers.

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Grieving family members wait in line for photos of the deceased. Some told CNN they had been waiting more than a day to cremate loved ones who died after contracting Covid. One man told CNN that the hospital where his friend died was too full to keep his body, because too many people had died there. He said his friend’s body was left on the hospital grounds.

In nearby shops selling funerary articles, a florist said they were running out of stock, and a small shopkeeper said business had never been so busy.

In many parts of the country, crematoriums are struggling to keep up with the influx of bodies, too, according to a depiction on social media.

Outside a Beijing hospital designated for Covid patients, a steady stream of elderly patients in wheelchairs entered the facility when CNN visited on Tuesday. Running out of space, a man outside the hospital said he had to go the night before to register an elderly family member for a bed.

A worker in protective gear, who was sorting yellow medical waste bags, said he has been working overtime in the evenings to deal with a surge of Covid patients. “There are a lot of elderly people in particular,” he said.

The worker said that elderly covid patients with underlying diseases were dying every day.

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Faced with growing suspicions that it is underestimating Covid deaths, the Chinese government has defended the accuracy of its official tally by revealing an update to its method for counting deaths from the virus.

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According to the latest guidelines from the National Health Commission, people whose deaths were caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus are classified as COVID deaths, Wang Guiqiang, chief infectious disease physician, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

He said those who are believed to have died from another disease or underlying condition, such as in the case of a heart attack, would not be counted as dying from the virus, even if they were sick with Covid at the time.

Commenting on China’s criteria for calculating Covid deaths on Wednesday, WHO chief of emergencies Michael Ryan said the definition was “too narrow”.

“People who die from Covid die from the failure of many different systems (organs), given the severity of the infection,” Ryan said. “So limiting the diagnosis of death from Covid to someone who had a positive Covid test and respiratory failure would greatly underestimate the true number of deaths related to Covid.”

According to Wang, a Chinese doctor, the change in definition was necessitated by the mild nature of Omicron, which differs from the Wuhan strain at the beginning of the epidemic, when most patients died of pneumonia and respiratory failure.

But Jin Donjian, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, pointed out that these are more or less the same stringent criteria that Chinese authorities have used to calculate Covid deaths all along.

Definition was only It widened a bit in April This year to include some Covid patients who died of underlying conditions during Shanghai’s lockdown in order to justify the strict restrictions, Jin said.

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During the outbreak in Shanghai from March to May, city officials reported 588 Covid deaths from nearly 600,000 infections. But once the city’s lockdown was lifted, the nationwide death toll remained at zero for the next six months, even though the number of infections reached hundreds of thousands. Then, in late November, Beijing announce Three octogenarians have died from underlying conditions with Covid, just as the city stepped up its Covid restrictions amid the widespread outbreak.

According to Jin, these discrepancies reveal that China’s way of calculating Covid deaths is “completely subjective”. “The death data was misleading from the start,” he said.

Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said counting Covid deaths versus Covid deaths has been a topic of discussion around the world since the beginning of the pandemic.

Most countries, including the United States, have decided it is too difficult to assess each death to see if Covid is a factor, Collinge said, and have counted deaths with Covid in their official death toll.

But he noted that the debate over how Covid deaths are calculated will be overshadowed by a larger issue in China – that there are very few PCR tests being conducted after the government backed away from mass testing.

We know there are many, many more COVID deaths already happening. And those are not counted the Chinese way or the American way, because the test is not done.

“The drastic reduction in testing will have an even greater impact on the death statistics that we will see in the next month or two.”

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