China shifts how it counts Covid deaths as crematoriums fill up

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Images of overcrowded hospitals and busy funeral homes from the United States have made headlines on Chinese state television for much of the pandemic.The deaths of more than a million Americans from Covid are a critical part of Western democracy. It is depicted as a failure.

Now, as an unprecedented wave of infections hits China, state media deliberately ignores scenes of crowded hospital wards and overcrowded crematoriums being rolled out at home, but officials say the government itself claims that very few people have died from Covid, according to their calculations.

For nearly three years, China’s hardline zero-Covid policy has protected its citizens from the kind of mass deaths that have plagued the West. This is the contrast the Communist Party has repeatedly emphasized to explain its ruling superiority.

But the possibility of China suddenly abandoning its strategy, with little warning or apparent preparation, and the death toll soaring (some studies predict it to reach a million) It has become a thorny issue for governments whose legitimacy is to ‘save the world’. ”

Officially, China has only reported eight Covid deaths this month. This is a surprisingly low figure given the rapid spread of the virus and relatively low vaccination coverage among vulnerable older people.

The official tally has been met with disbelief and ridicule online, with posts rife with mourning loved ones who died of Covid. We reported on the death of a state media journalist the day the official toll dropped to zero.

Other social media posts describe the frustrations many people have experienced trying to obtain a hearse, as well as the difficulty of securing slots for cremation at funeral homes.

When CNN visited Beijing’s main crematorium on Tuesday, parking lots were full and there were long lines of cars meandering around the cremation area, waiting to enter. There was a constant swell, and yellow body bags piled up in metal containers.

Grieving families waiting in line clutched photographs of the deceased. Some told CNN they had waited more than a day to cremate their loved ones who died of Covid. said. His friend’s body was lying on the hospital floor, he said.

At a nearby funerary store, florists said they were out of stock, and convenience store owners said they were busier than ever.

In many parts of the country, crematoria are also struggling to keep up with the 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 who was outside the hospital said they were running out of space and had to go the night before to register an elderly family member’s bed.

Workers in protective clothing who were sorting yellow bags of medical waste said they were working extra hours in the evenings to deal with the surge in Covid cases. Said.

Elderly Covid patients with underlying health conditions are dying every day, workers said.

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In the face of growing skepticism that it downplays the number of deaths from the new coronavirus, the Chinese government has defended the accuracy of official tallies and said it has updated its counting of virus deaths. .

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According to the latest guidelines from the National Health Commission, only those who died due to pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus are classified as Covid-related deaths, said Wang Guiqiang, top doctor for infectious diseases. said at a news conference on Tuesday.

He said a person whose death is deemed to have been caused by another illness or underlying condition, such as in the case of a heart attack, is not considered to have died from the virus, even if they were infected with the novel coronavirus at the time. .

The World Health Organization’s emergency chief, Michael Ryan, commented Wednesday on the criteria by which China counts Covid deaths, saying the definition was “pretty narrow.”

“People who have died from Covid have died from various (organ) system failures, given the severity of the infection,” Ryan said. “Thus, limiting the diagnosis of Covid deaths to those with Covid-positive tests and respiratory failure would greatly underestimate the actual number of Covid-related deaths.”

The change in definition was necessitated by Omicron’s mild nature, unlike the Wuhan strain at the start of the pandemic, where most patients died of pneumonia and respiratory failure, according to Chinese doctor Wang.

But Jin Dongyang, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, points out that this is about the same stringent standard that Chinese authorities have been using to tally Covid deaths.

The definition was expanded slightly in April Jin said some Covid patients who died from underlying conditions during Shanghai’s lockdown should be included this year to justify the strict restrictions.

During the March-May outbreak in Shanghai, city officials reported 588 Covid deaths with about 600,000 infections. However, once the city’s lockdown was lifted, the national death toll remained at zero for the next six months, even though the number of infected people reached hundreds of thousands. Beijing has announced that three 80-somethings have died from underlying Covid illnesses.

According to Jin, these discrepancies reveal that China’s counting of coronavirus deaths is “totally subjective.” “The death data were misleading from the start,” he said.

Ben Cowling, professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said counting Covid-related and Covid-related deaths has been a topic of debate around the world since the start of the pandemic.

Most countries, including the United States, decided it was too difficult to assess all deaths to know if Covid was a factor and counted Covid deaths in their official death tolls, Cowling said. rice field.

But he said the debate about how Covid deaths are counted is overshadowed by a bigger problem in China: PCR tests are almost non-existent after the government scales back mass testing. He pointed out that

“We know there have already been so many Covid deaths. This is because it is not

“A drastic reduction in testing will have a significant impact on the death statistics we see over the next month or two.”

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