China reports first COVID deaths in weeks as official count questioned

  • Two deaths have been reported in Beijing, the first since December 3
  • It comes after Beijing relaxed anti-virus controls.
  • Citizens, analysts question official figures.
  • The virus outbreak is weighing on the world’s No. 2 economy.

BEIJING, Dec 19 (Reuters) – China reported its first COVID-related death in weeks on Monday, amid growing doubts over whether the government will ease strict anti-virus controls. The official number of disease outbreaks in cities is spreading across the board. .

The two deaths on Monday were reported by the National Health Commission (NHC) for the first time since December 3, days before Beijing announced it was lifting restrictions that have largely contained the virus. It had been under control for three years but sparked mass protests last month.

On Saturday, however, Reuters reporters lined up outside a designated COVID-19 crematorium in Beijing to listen and see workers in hazmat suits carrying the dead inside the facility. Reuters could not immediately determine whether the deaths were due to Covid.

A hashtag on two reported COVID deaths quickly became the top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform on Monday.

“What’s the point of incomplete statistics?” asked one user. “Isn’t that cheating the public?” wrote another.

The NHC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The low number of deaths since restrictions were lifted on December 7 is inconsistent with the experience of other countries following similar measures. China has officially suffered only 5,237 COVID-related deaths during the pandemic, including the latest two deaths, a tiny fraction of its 1.4 billion population.

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But health experts say China may be paying a price for taking such drastic measures to protect a population that now lacks natural immunity to COVID-19 and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.

Some fear that the number of deaths from COVID in China could exceed 1.5 million in the coming months.

The respected Chinese news agency Caixin reported on Friday that two state media journalists had died after contracting COVID, and then on Saturday a 23-year-old medical student also died. It was not immediately clear which, if any, of those deaths were included in the official death toll.

“This (official) number is clearly an underestimate of the number of deaths from COVID,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank.

This “may reflect a lack of state capacity to effectively track and monitor the disease situation on the ground after the end of the mass PCR testing system, but it also reflects widespread fear of an increase in COVID deaths.” It may also be driven by efforts to avoid harassment.” They said.

The NHC reported 1,995 symptomatic infections on December 18, compared to 2,097 the day before.

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But infection rates have also become an unreliable guide because of less mandatory PCR testing after recent relaxations. The NHC stopped reporting asymptomatic cases last week, citing a lack of testing.

Chinese stocks fell and the yuan was lower against the dollar on Monday, as investors worried that rising cases of COVID-19 would further weigh on the world’s second-largest economy, despite promises of government support.

As the virus spread on trading floors in Beijing and quickly spread to the financial hub of Shanghai, illness and absenteeism thinned already light trading and prompted regulators to scrutinize public share sales weekly. The meeting was forced to be cancelled.

Japanese chipmaker Renesas Electronics Corp ( 6723.T ) said on Monday it has suspended work at its Beijing plant due to the spread of the COVID-19 infection.

China’s business confidence fell to its lowest level since January 2013 in December, a World Economics survey showed on Monday. China’s economy is expected to grow 3 percent this year, its worst performance in nearly half a century.

Spreading fast.

China’s chief epidemiologist Wu Zunyu said on Saturday that the country is in the grip of the first of three expected Covid waves this winter, which people say they are experiencing on the ground.

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“I would say 60-70% of my colleagues are infected right now,” Liu, a 37-year-old worker at a university canteen in Beijing, told Reuters, asking not to be identified by name.

Beijing city official Su Hejian told reporters Monday that COVID is spreading rapidly in the capital, putting pressure on medical resources. Still, more restrictions will be lifted, with previously closed venues underground, from bars to Internet cafes, allowed to reopen, Xu said.

Su did not comment on any casualties.

Another official said Beijing will speed up imports of COVID drugs amid shortages in the city’s pharmacies. Read more

While top officials have been downplaying the threat posed by the Omicron strain of the virus in recent weeks, officials are concerned about seniors who are reluctant to get vaccinated.

Vaccination rates in China are over 90%, but government data show that the rate drops to 57.9% for adults who receive booster shots, and 42.3% for those aged 80 and over. .

Medical workers in Beijing’s Shijingshan district are going door-to-door offering to vaccinate elderly residents in their homes, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Reporting by Liz Lee, Martin Quinn Pollard, Eduardo Baptista, Ethan Wang and Ryan Wu in Beijing and David Curtin in Shenzhen; Written by John Geddy and Marius Zaharia; Edited by Simon Cameron Moore

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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