China changes how it counts Covid deaths as crematoria fill up


For much of the pandemic, images of overflowing hospitals and busy funeral homes from the United States have featured heavily on China’s state-controlled television, where the death of more than a million Americans from Covid has been portrayed as a total failure of Western democracy.

Now, a Unprecedented waves of infection tearing up ChinaIts state media deliberately ignores footage of overcrowded hospital wards and overflowing crematoria, while officials insist that, in the government’s own numbers, few are dying from Covid.

For nearly three years, China’s strict zero-covid policy has protected its people from the mass deaths that haunt the West — a contrast driven home repeatedly by the Communist Party. Explains the alleged superiority Its destiny.

But as China abruptly abandons that strategy, with little warning or apparent preparation, the prospect of rising deaths — predicted by some studies. Up to a million – This has become a thorny issue for the government, which has its legitimacy in “saving lives”.

Officially, China reported only eight Covid deaths this month — a low number given the rapid spread of the virus and relatively low vaccine booster rates among the vulnerable elderly.

The official tally has been met with disbelief and derision online, where posts grieving loved ones dying of Covid abound. Caixin, a Chinese financial magazine known for its investigative pieces, reported on the deaths of two senior state media journalists from Covid-19, while the official count was zero.

Other social media posts described the frustration many experienced in trying to buy a body and the difficulty of getting a cremation space at a funeral home.

When CNN visited a major crematorium in Beijing on Tuesday, the parking lot was full, with a long line of cars snaking around the crematorium waiting to enter. Smoke continued to billow from the furnaces, while yellow body bags piled up inside the metal pans. .

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The family members who waited in the queue holding photos of the deceased are overwhelmed with grief. Some told CNN that they have been waiting more than a day to cremate their loved ones who have died from Covid-19. One man told CNN that the hospital where his friend died was too full to hold the body because so many people had died there. His friend’s body was left on the hospital floor, he said.

At nearby stores selling funeral supplies, a florist said he was out of stock, and a convenience store owner said business had never been so busy.

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

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

A hazmat-suited worker sorting through yellow bags of medical waste said he was working extra hours in the evening to deal with the surge of Covid patients. “There are especially a lot of older people,” he said.

Elderly Covid patients with underlying conditions are dying every day, the worker said.

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Faced with growing suspicion that it is underestimating Covid deaths, the Chinese government has defended the accuracy of its official figures by revealing that it has updated its method of counting deaths from the virus.

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According to the National Health Commission’s latest guidelines, only those who die of pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus are classified as Covid deaths, Wang Guiqiang, a top infectious disease doctor, told a press conference on Tuesday.

People who are presumed to have died of another disease or an underlying condition, such as a heart attack, are not counted as viral deaths, even if they were infected with Covid at the time, he said.

Commenting on China’s criteria for counting Covid deaths on Wednesday, World Health Organization emergencies chief Michael Ryan said the definition was “too narrow”.

“People dying from Covid, given the severity of the infection, are dying from multiple (organ) system failures,” Ryan said. “So controlling for a Covid-related death in someone who tests positive for Covid and has respiratory failure will likely underestimate the true number of deaths associated with Covid.”

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

But Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, pointed out that Chinese authorities use more or less the same strict criteria to count Covid deaths.

There was only definition Slightly expanded in April To justify the tighter restrictions, Jin said, include some Covid patients who died of underlying conditions during Shanghai’s lockdown this year.

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During the Shanghai outbreak from March to May, city officials recorded 588 Covid deaths out of about 600,000 infections. But once the city’s lockdown was lifted, the nationwide death toll remained at zero for the next six months, despite the number of infections reaching the hundreds of thousands. Then, at the end of November, Beijing declared Three octogenarians have died of underlying conditions from Covid-19, just as the city ramped up its own Covid restrictions amid the widespread outbreak.

According to Jin, these discrepancies reveal China’s method of counting Covid deaths as “completely subjective”. “Mortality data is misleading from the start,” he said.

Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said the calculation of Covid and Covid-19 deaths has been a matter of debate worldwide since the start of the pandemic.

Most countries, including the United States, have decided that it is too difficult to assess each death to know whether Covid was a factor and have counted deaths with Covid in their official death toll, Cowling said.

But he pointed out that the debate over how to count Covid deaths could be overshadowed by a bigger problem in China — namely, that too little PCR testing is being done after the government rolled back mass testing.

“We know that there have already been many, many more Covid deaths. And they’re not counted in the Chinese system or the American system because there’s no testing,” he said.

“A significant reduction in testing will have a greater effect on the mortality figures that we’re going to see in the next one to two months.”

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