For much of the pandemic, images of overflowing hospitals and busy funeral homes across the United States have featured heavily on Chinese state-controlled television, where the deaths of more than a million Americans because of Covid is described as a glaring failure of Western democracy.
Now, as an unprecedented wave of infections sweeps through China, its state media is deliberately ignoring scenes of crowded hospital wards and crowded crematoriums unfolding at home, while officials insist that by the government’s own count, few people are dying from Covid.
For nearly three years, China’s extremist zero Covid policy has shielded its people from the kind of mass deaths that haunt Western nations – a contrast repeatedly repeated by the Communist Party to illustrate its supposed superiority of power.
But as China abruptly abandoned this strategy, with little apparent warning or preparation, the prospect of a rise in the number of deaths – projected by some studies as high as one million – became a thorny issue for a government that staked its legitimacy on “saving lives”. ”
Officially, China has reported just eight Covid deaths this month – a surprisingly low figure given the virus’s rapid spread and relatively low booster rates among vulnerable older people.
The official tally has been met with disbelief and ridicule online, where posts mourning loved ones dying from Covid abound. Caixin, a Chinese financial magazine known for its investigative reporting, reported on the deaths of two veteran state media journalists infected with Covid, on days when the official toll was zero.
Other social media posts described the frustration felt by many trying to get a hearse and the difficulty of securing a slot for cremation at a funeral home.
When CNN visited a large crematorium in Beijing on Tuesday, the parking lot was completely packed, with a long line of cars winding around the cremation area waiting to enter. Smoke constantly billowed from the ovens, while yellow body bags piled up in metal containers. .
Grieving family members queuing clutched photos of the deceased. Some told CNN they had been waiting for more than a day to cremate loved ones who died after contracting Covid. A man told CNN that the hospital where his friend died was too full to keep the body because so many people had died there. His friend’s body was left on the hospital floor, he said.
At nearby shops selling funeral items, a florist said it was out of stock and a convenience store owner said business had never been busier.
In many parts of the country, crematoriums are also struggling to cope with an influx of bodies, according to social media footage.
Outside a Beijing hospital designated for Covid patients, a steady stream of elderly patients in wheelchairs entered the facility when CNN visited on Tuesday. A man outside the hospital said space was tight and he had to go the night before to register his elderly family member for a bed.
A worker in hazmat suits, who was sorting yellow bags of medical waste, said he had worked overtime in the evenings to cope with the influx of Covid patients. “There are a lot of older people in particular,” he said.
Elderly Covid patients with underlying illnesses were dying every day, the worker said.
China has reported fewer Covid deaths since removing zero-Covid. CNN sees a different story
Amid growing skepticism that it is downplaying Covid deaths, the Chinese government has defended the accuracy of its official tally by revealing that it has updated its method of counting deaths caused by the virus.
According to the latest guidelines from the National Health Commission, only those whose deaths are caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus are classified as Covid deaths, said Wang Guiqiang, an infectious disease doctor on Tuesday. , during a press conference.
People deemed to have died from another illness or underlying condition, such as a heart attack, will not be counted as a virus death, even if they had Covid at the time, a he declared.
Commenting on China’s criteria for counting Covid deaths on Wednesday, World Health Organization emergencies chief Michael Ryan said the definition was “pretty narrow”.
“People who die from Covid die from many different (organ) system failures, depending on the severity of the infection,” Ryan said. “So limiting a diagnosis of Covid death to someone with a positive Covid test and respiratory failure will grossly underestimate the true death toll associated with Covid.”
According to Wang, the Chinese doctor, the change in definition was necessitated by the mild nature of Omicron, which is different from the Wuhan strain at the start of the pandemic, when most patients died of pneumonia and respiratory failure.
But Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, stressed that these are more or less the same strict criteria Chinese authorities have used to tally Covid deaths from the start.
The definition was only slightly expanded in April this year to include some Covid patients who died of underlying conditions during Shanghai’s lockdown to justify the draconian restrictions, Jin said.
During Shanghai’s outbreak from March to May, city officials reported 588 Covid deaths among some 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 hundreds of thousands. Then, in late November, Beijing announced that three octogenarians had died of underlying conditions with Covid, just as the city stepped up its own Covid restrictions amid a widening outbreak.
According to Jin, these inconsistencies reveal that China’s method of counting Covid deaths is “entirely subjective”. “The death data has been misleading from the start,” he said.
Counting Covid deaths versus Covid deaths has been a topic of debate around the world since the start of the pandemic, said Ben Cowling, professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.
Most countries, including the United States, decided it was too difficult to assess each death to find out if Covid was a factor, and counted deaths with Covid in their official toll, Cowling said.
But he pointed out that the debate over how to count Covid deaths would be overshadowed by a bigger problem in China – namely, there are very few PCR tests carried out after the government canceled mass testing.
“We know there are many, many Covid deaths already. And those are not counted with the Chinese method or with the American method, because the tests are not carried out,” he said.
“The substantial reduction in testing would have a bigger effect on the death statistics that we’re going to see in the next one to two months.”