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China is burying the stats on its Covid nightmare

Beijing says about 25 people have died from Covid in the last month. Yeah, right.
Image: Medical workers move a patient into emergency care unit at Peking University Third Hospital in Beijing.
Medical workers move a patient into emergency care at Peking University Third Hospital in Beijing on Tuesday. VCG / Getty Images

China is in the throes of a nightmare Covid scenario. Since it lifted Covid restrictions across the country in December, hundreds of millions have reportedly gotten sick, hospitals have been overwhelmed, pharmacies have been emptied of medicine, and deaths have surged so much that funeral homes are limiting people to under 10 minutes to mourn their loved ones because of the huge number of bodies they’re handling. 

But according to the Chinese government, there is no crisis. At the moment, the government has described the Covid situation as under control. And it’s releasing jaw-dropping statistics to defend the claim, officially recognizing just 25 Covid-related deaths since the beginning of December.  

The World Health Organization and independent analysts are calling out China for vastly underreporting Covid-related statistics, including hospital admissions and Covid-related deaths, which China has narrowed the definition of to keep the numbers low. The British health data firm Airfinity estimates that many thousands are dying from Covid daily, and that as many as 25,000 people could soon start dying every day. It also predicts that 1.7 million people could die from the virus by the end of April.

It is appalling that the China is burying vital data to conceal the extent of its crisis. But what’s worse is that this was preventable.

It is appalling that the China is burying vital data to conceal the extent of its crisis. But what’s worse is that this was preventable. China's government has swung overnight from draconian restrictions to a brutal free-for-all without adequate preparation, illustrating a consistent disregard for the welfare of its people.

China had three years to prepare for this moment. Until December, it was under a uniquely aggressive containment strategy, which entailed sweeping lockdowns, invasive surveillance, tight control of population movement and mass testing. While outside analysts suggested the government undercounted the pandemic’s initial outbreak in Wuhan province, under this strict Covid regime, China could brag that it had defied the mass deaths that most countries around the world experienced in 2020. But the social cost was also high. Restriction of movement was heavy-handed when new cases popped up, and some reports indicate China was using its lockdown strategy as a tool to suppress dissent. And the country experienced unprecedented protests after people suspected that some died from a fire in Xinjiang province because firefighters may have been blocked from getting to the victims quickly enough because of Covid lockdown physical barriers.

Unlike other countries that used aggressive containment strategies, China didn’t use this time to prepare to loosen restrictions. China refused to import more effective mRNA vaccines from abroad. While the initial vaccination rate was high, only about 40% of its population has been boosted, and older Chinese people — the most vulnerable population — have lower vaccination rates than the general population. The government also didn’t stock up on antiviral medications proven to mitigate the symptoms of Covid. And health care workers around the country have complained that despite years of international information-sharing about Covid, they’ve been left in the dark about treatment protocols and triaging techniques. Given knowledge of how hospital capacity is vital to reducing death rates from surges, it is shocking that China didn’t try a more incremental technique for lifting restrictions.

Now, instead of admitting that maybe it swung too far from one extreme to another, Beijing has decided to bury the data. It’s a desperate attempt at reputational damage control. It could work insofar as the world is unaware of just how bad things have gotten, because its public-facing statistics might be forever tainted. But the callousness of the government is as plain as day.