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China had almost 2 million excess deaths after the end of ‘zero-Covid,’ U.S. study finds

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Technicians perform protein testing on the Covid-19 vaccine ReCOV at the Reco Biological Workshop in Taizhou, Jiangsu province, China, December 23, 2021.

CFOTO | Future Publishing | Getty Images

There were almost 2 million excess deaths in the two months after China lifted its “zero-Covid” restrictions, a U.S. study found, contradicting official figures from Beijing that have been criticized as too low.

Researchers estimate there were 1.87 million excess deaths from all causes among people 30 years and older from December 2022 to January, according to the study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle published Thursday. The deaths, which were observed across all mainland Chinese provinces, except Tibet, were predominantly among older people.

China’s strict zero-Covid policies, which included mass testing, border closures and extended citywide lockdowns, kept Covid cases and deaths to a minimum for much of the pandemic. But when the government abruptly lifted the restrictions in December after rare mass protests across the country, the virus was unleashed on 1.4 billion people who had barely been exposed to it.

The resulting wave of cases, driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant, brought a huge increase in hospitalizations and deaths that experts say were underreported by officials. They pointed to anecdotal evidence, as well as satellite imagery showing heightened activity at crematoriums and funeral homes.

The 1.87 million figure is far higher than the official data from China, which said about 60,000 Covid–related deaths had been recorded in health facilities from early December 2022 to Jan. 12.

It is also consistent with estimates by other researchers, including a study by Zhanwei Du of the University of Hong Kong and Lauren Ancel Meyers of the University of Texas at Austin that found Covid may have killed more than 1.4 million people in China from Dec. 16, 2022 to Jan. 19.

The estimate from the study released Thursday was based on obituaries published by three Chinese universities for both current and retired employees, as well as searches on Baidu, a popular Chinese internet search engine, for words such as “cremation” and “burial.”

“Our study of excess deaths related to the lifting of the zero-Covid policy in China sets an empirically derived benchmark estimate,” the researchers wrote. “These findings are important for understanding how the sudden propagation of Covid-19 across a population may impact population mortality.”

The study did appear to be “close to the actual data” based on the research available so far, said Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. The way the study estimates data is not “scientifically rigorous,” but it is nonetheless an “objective” and “beneficial” attempt, Jin added.

Jin said the actual data could be a few percentage points lower or higher than the study estimates. The university employees used as benchmarks by the study, most of whom are intellectuals living in cities, may be characterized by a stronger self-preparatory awareness, higher vaccination rate, and more accessible health care resources, Jin said. This could be offset since they may also have been more likely to have underlying health conditions than normal people, Jin added.

“The best approach would be for the country to be honest and transparent, disclosing everything just as it was done in previous years such as 2018 and 2019,” Jin said.

Overall, China has reported fewer than 122,000 Covid-related deaths to the World Health Organization. The United States, by comparison, has reported more than 1.1 million Covid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Chinese officials deny they have withheld Covid data from the international community, accusing the U.S., WHO and others of politicizing the pandemic. They say they are still analyzing excess deaths and will have a more complete picture of the Covid death toll at a later date. 

Calls to China’s National Health Commission went unanswered Friday.

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