Chinese health authorities Monday announced two new COVID-19 deaths, both in Beijing, that were the first reported in weeks and come during an expected surge of illnesses after the nation eased its strict approach to the coronavirus.
China had not reported a death from COVID-19 since Dec. 4, even though unofficial reports of a new wave of cases are widespread.
With the latest reported deaths, the National Health Commission raised China’s total to 5,237 deaths from COVID-19 in the last three years, out of 380,453 cases of illness — numbers that are much lower than in other major countries but also based on statistics and information-gathering methods that have come into question.
Chinese health authorities count only those who died directly from COVID-19, and exclude people whose underlying conditions such as diabetes and heart disease were worsened by the coronavirus.
In many other countries, guidelines stipulate that any death where the coronavirus is a factor or contributor is counted as a COVID-related death.
The announcement comes amid statements from family members and people who work in the funeral business, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, saying deaths tied to COVID-19 were increasing.
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Protesters in China are eager to see an easing of “zero-COVID” rules, but health experts warn that doing so could prompt a massive health emergency.
China had long hailed its hard-line “zero-COVID” approach as keeping numbers of cases and deaths relatively low — comparing itself favorably with the U.S., where the death toll has topped 1.1 million.
Yet the policy of lockdowns, travel restrictions, mandatory testing and quarantines placed Chinese society and the economy under enormous stress, which apparently persuaded the ruling Communist Party to heed outside advice and alter its strategy.
The easing began in November, and accelerated after Beijing and several other cities saw protests over the restrictions that grew into calls for President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down — a level of public dissent not seen in decades.
On Wednesday, the government said it would stop reporting asymptomatic COVID-19 cases since they’ve become impossible to track now that mass testing is no longer required. Most testing is now carried out privately, with those showing only mild symptoms allowed to recuperate at home without being forced into a centralized quarantine center.
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First-time protesters in China grapple with how much agency they can wrest from an authoritarian government after the largest demonstrations since 1989.
The lack of data has made it more difficult to grasp the scale of the outbreak or its direction. However, a major drop in economic activity and anecdotal evidence of the coronavirus’ spread point to a growing caseload, while health experts have projected a possible major wave of new infections and a spike in deaths over the next month or two, particularly among the elderly.
China is trying, apparently with only moderate success, to persuade reluctant seniors and others at risk to get vaccinated. The other major concern is shoring up health resources in smaller cities and the vast rural hinterland ahead of January’s Lunar New Year travel rush, which will see migrant workers returning to their hometowns.
Numbers of fever clinics have been expanded in both urban and rural areas, and patients have been asked to stay home unless seriously ill to conserve resources. Hospitals are also running short of staff, and reports say workers have been asked to return to their posts as long as they aren’t feverish.
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