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As Cases Explode, China’s Low Covid Death Toll Convinces No One

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The hearses bearing black and yellow funeral paper flowers crept in a gentle stream toward the Dongjiao crematory in eastern Beijing. Several dozen people crowded across the closed gate waiting to be let in. A person unable to get a spot in line could only watch, wondering what to do with the body of a relative who had just died of Covid.

The hospital couldn’t keep the body — there have been already too many in its morgue. When he called the crematory, an worker told him he had to attend every week. When he called again, no one answered.

A rustic attempting to mourn its dead from an explosive Covid outbreak is grappling with a system unprepared for the surge in fatalities. Two weeks after China abruptly abandoned its “zero Covid” policy, cases have soared in cities like Beijing, together with reports of individuals dying.

Funeral home directors and sellers of funeral supplies describe a flood of phone calls from families needing help handling the bodies of relatives. On Chinese social media, individuals are sharing videos and photos of morgues crowded with bodies, in addition to their very own personal accounts of losing family members to the outbreak.

But China’s government is painting a less dire picture. In its official statistics and propaganda reports, China has acknowledged only seven deaths from Covid previously two weeks, and only in Beijing. The National Health Commission even reduced the country’s cumulative Covid death toll on Wednesday by one, to five,241. Officials have explained that China counts Covid deaths provided that the virus was the direct explanation for a respiratory failure — a definition the World Health Organization said would result in an enormous underestimate.

The ruling Communist Party can have a political incentive to downplay the toll of an epidemic it has suddenly stopped trying to manage. Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, has portrayed his country’s earlier success in limiting Covid deaths as evidence of China’s superiority over the West, a claim that might be hard to take care of with quite a few deaths.

“In the event that they were to publicize the death figure, it might amount to an enormous blow to the prestige of the party,” said Willy Lam, an authority in Chinese politics on the Jamestown Foundation, a research group.

But doctors and international health experts say an underestimate of the toll risks fueling public complacency in regards to the risks of the virus. Chinese commentators and the general public have widely criticized the death toll, saying it obfuscates the actual picture and hurts the federal government’s credibility.

“These are an example of ‘believing in a single’s own lies,’” Mei Xinyu, an economist at a research institute affiliated with the Commerce Ministry, wrote on his social media page, commenting on a each day report of Covid figures released by the federal government. He later posted an announcement that the father-in-law of a outstanding economist had died from pneumonia induced by Covid. The person’s family, he wrote, waited hours for an ambulance to reach and take him to the hospital.

The Communist Party solid aside restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which set off mass protests that were a rare challenge to the Communist leadership.

“Ultimately, he could only be left on the ground of the hospital mortuary, awaiting cremation,” Mr. Mei wrote. He said that the family was having trouble getting a cremation slot and hiring a hearse. “The relations are heartbroken.”

As is the case elsewhere, deaths in China are inclined to rise in winter, due to a rise in flu and other respiratory infections, even in normal times. But people working in funeral services say they’ve noticed a bigger increase than usual. On the Yong’an funeral services business in Shijiazhuang, a city about 200 miles southwest of Beijing, an worker said that he used to handle 10 deaths monthly but is now getting calls for about five every day.

Some Chinese media reports have acknowledged a handful of Covid-related deaths. Wang Ruoji, a 37-year-old retired soccer star, died after a Covid infection worsened an underlying condition. Caixin, a respected news outlet, wrote that Zhou Zhichun, a former senior editor at a Communist Party newspaper, died at 77 after getting Covid, along with his doctors classifying the cause as sudden cardiac death.

But on social media, users have shared official obituaries of several other outstanding individuals who have died in recent days, including an opera singer and an artist who helped design sports mascots. Many speculated that the true explanation for these deaths was being concealed with descriptions comparable to “severe cold infections.”

At a government news conference on Tuesday, Wang Guiqiang, an infectious diseases expert, said China counts only those that died from pneumonia or respiratory failure attributable to Covid in its official toll. He said that cases of fatal pneumonia are less frequent since the Omicron variant that’s prevalent now infects mostly the upper airway.

One other official explained why China revised its Covid death toll down by one this week. A review by experts determined that one death reported on Tuesday was a one who had died from other diseases, Yao Xiujun, a publicity official on the Beijing Municipal Commission of Health and Family Planning, said in a phone interview.

China’s limited definition excludes the deaths of people that had underlying diseases that were aggravated by Covid. Deaths in China are also only ascribed to Covid by panels of experts convened by hospitals, potentially leaving out individuals who died at home or elsewhere.

In contrast, the US, Britain and Hong Kong are inclined to include individuals who died with Covid, and never just of it, to various degrees.

China may not be alone in its approach. In Russia, the federal government counts only deaths confirmed to have been directly attributable to the virus.

On Wednesday, Michael Ryan, head of health emergencies on the World Health Organization, suggested that China’s definition was inadequate. “It’s quite focused on respiratory failure — individuals who die of Covid die from many alternative systems failures given the severity of the infection,” he said.

China’s methodology, he said, “will very much underestimate the true death toll related to Covid.”

Such an underestimate has its benefits, health experts say. It could limit public panic and reduce the burden imposed on hospitals by individuals who usually are not severely unwell. Already, China has been struggling to offer supplies of ibuprofen and other fever-reducing medication as people have rushed to hoard such drugs.

An underestimate could also help businesses at a time when the federal government has been attempting to rescue an economy battered by nearly three years of disruptive lockdowns and dear testing programs. In some large cities, corporations and officials are encouraging people to go to work even when mildly sick with Covid.

But an undercount could also backfire by undermining the federal government’s own efforts to induce the general public to take vital precautions. Many seniors in China might proceed avoiding vaccination, and younger people might take the virus less seriously than they need to, said Jin Dongyan, a virologist on the University of Hong Kong.

Professor Jin said China has for a long time recorded deaths from infectious diseases narrowly, including SARS in 2003 and seasonal flu. It made an exception in the course of the Shanghai lockdown within the spring of this yr, using a looser definition because the authorities sought to justify what became a bruising, two-month lockdown.

Of the 588 Covid deaths the Shanghai city government reported, one was ascribed to a heart attack, and the remainder to “underlying conditions” or “tumors.” Despite this inconsistency, the National Health Commission has never expunged those deaths from the national data.

Irrespective of what the official numbers depict, China is expecting a wave of deaths.

“Although the general case fatality rate is low, the number of individuals infected may be very large, so this may increasingly make absolutely the variety of deaths attributable to this risk relatively large,” Wang Guangfa, a respiratory specialist at Peking University First Hospital, said in an interview.

Already, the strain is fueling public frustration.

“The funeral homes are crazily packed,” said a Beijing resident who would only give her surname, Chen, for fear of retaliation from the federal government. Ms. Chen said that her grandfather died on Tuesday of Covid complications, including pneumonia and kidney failure, after being in a coma for every week.

It took two days for Ms. Chen’s family to search out a funeral home in Beijing that might cremate her grandfather’s body. Ms. Chen also expressed skepticism over the federal government’s Covid statistics.

“If there are only five Covid deaths in someday, I actually have known nearly half of them,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking that we Beijing people should bear the primary impact of the huge spread of the virus.”

Li You, Claire Fu and John Liu contributed reporting and research.

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