China hails ‘decisive victory’ over Covid as deaths fall
The Chinese government has declared a “decisive victory” in the battle against Covid-19, claiming it had created “a miracle in the history of human civilisation” in successfully steering China through the global pandemic.
The comments were made at a meeting presided over by President Xi Jinping on Thursday. The government said more than 200 million people had been treated for Covid and that China’s death rate from coronavirus was “the lowest level in the world”.
China’s National Health Commission stopped publishing data on Covid cases and deaths on 25 December, after the government suddenly lifted the draconian zero-Covid policies that had restricted movement in the country for almost three years.
On 9 February, it said 83,150 people had died from Covid, which would be an unusually low rate for a country grappling with a wave of the Omicron variant. But there are many other indicators that suggest the virus has ripped through China since December, causing a far higher number of illnesses and deaths than the official data suggests.
Chinese authorities count only Covid deaths that happen in hospitals, an approach the World Health Organization says underestimates the true toll. There have been reports of doctors pressured to leave Covid off death certificates. And mass testing has largely been abandoned. The number of daily tests dropped from 150m on 9 December to 280,000 on 23 January. “We still don’t know how many were infected and how many died at home,” said Prof Jin Dong-Yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong.
Since December, hospitals and mortuaries have been overwhelmed with patients and bodies. Using modelling based on the age distribution and vaccination rates in China, Zhanwei Du and Lauren Ancel Meyers, of the University of Texas in Austin, estimate 1.5 million people died from Covid between 16 December and 19 January.
The US, whose population is 334 million compared with China’s 1.4 billion, has reported just over 1.1 million Covid deaths since the start of the pandemic. Europe, home to about 750 million people, has suffered 2 million deaths.
Drugs to treat Covid have become scarce. Pharmacists in several cities have reportedly been opening boxes of ibuprofen and paracetamol to split them into smaller batches in order to serve more customers.
Paxlovid, a medicine developed by Pfizer, has been particularly sought after, with prices rocketing on the illegal market. Agence France-Presse reported that one seller was asking for 18,000 yuan (£2,190) for a single box in January, as many desperate patients looked overseas to try to procure the drug.
In January, Xi expressed concern that domestic travel over the lunar new year holiday, when hundreds of millions of people travelled home, many for the first time in three years, could spread the virus. But the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention later said Covid cases peaked in late December, and the spread of the virus “did not rebound significantly” over the lunar new year.
China’s Omicron wave may have peaked. But without proper testing, gleaning accurate statistics about the spread of the disease would be “challenging”, said Jin.