On January 9, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin commented on travel advisories issued by several European countries warning against non-essential trips to China amid a surge in COVID-19 cases there.
COVID-19 infections have been rippling through China since Beijing last month abruptly dropped extensive testing and lengthy lockdowns in response to country-wide protests.
As the world’s most populous country grapples with mounting infections and hospitalizations, unofficial reports of overrun hospitals and crematories abound.
On January 7, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg discouraged non-essential trips to China. More than a dozen countries, including the United States, have imposed testing requirements for travelers from China, citing the lack of transparent COVID-19 data from Beijing.
On Monday, January 9, Wang defended Beijing’s latest COVID-19 measures. He said the situation is under control and “overall improving.”
“China has all along shared information on its monitoring of the mutation of the virus and infected groups with the international community in a timely, open and transparent manner.”
That is misleading.
As Polygraph.info has previously reported, since the start of the pandemic, Western governments and the World Health Organization have repeatedly accused China of withholding certain COVID-19 data and underreporting its case counts and death toll.
The WHO has repeatedly called on China to share data that could help the world understand the origin of the pandemic, which over three years has claimed more than 6.7 million lives worldwide.
In this latest eruption of new COVID-19 cases in China starting in December, the WHO has accused Beijing of downplaying the severity of the outbreak.
On January 3, top scientists from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention presented data to the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) showing no new coronavirus variant had been identified in China.
Although that might have eased the concerns of some, the WHO voiced unequivocal concern:
"We believe the current numbers being published from China underrepresent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions, in terms of ICU admissions, particularly in terms of death," WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan told a January 4 briefing in Geneva.
“We still do not have complete data,” he said.
While acknowledging the “difficulties in all countries” in recording those data, he said that China’s definition of COVID-19 deaths is “too narrow.”
China only includes those who die from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its COVID-19 death toll. Wang Guiqiang, the head of infectious disease at Peking University’s No. 1 Hospital, confirmed that deaths of patients with underlying diseases are not counted as COVID-19 deaths, The Associated Press reported last month.
That counting method diverges from the rest of the world. The WHO specifies that deaths in which COVID-19 is a contributing cause must be counted. Most countries, including the United States, followed the WHO’s guidance.
China recorded only 13 official COVID-19 deaths in December 2022, despite the fact that provinces and cities across the country were reporting vast numbers of daily new cases.
For example, The New York Times reported that an official in Zhejiang Province estimated on December 25 that new COVID-19 cases there had exceeded 1 million daily.
On December 23, a health minister in the city of Qingdao said there were about half a million daily new cases. A health commission report by the city of Dongguan estimated between 250,000 and 300,000 new cases daily. Officials in the city of Yulin recorded 157,000 infected on December 23.
Meanwhile, China’s national health commission reported only 4,128 COVID-19 cases for the entire country on December 23.
Such rapid spread of infections suggests a much higher number of deaths, experts say. So do numerous news reports and social media posts about the country’s overflowing crematoriums.
For example, The Washington Post examined satellite imagery of funeral homes in six different cities across China and found “an uptick in activity.”
“The imagery is consistent with interviews The Post conducted with mourning Chinese residents and funeral home workers. Social media posts verified by The Post reveal long wait times and overwhelmed staff at additional facilities. In all of the areas analyzed, the official death toll announced by authorities was in the single digits — if reported at all.”
A funeral home receptionist told the Post that “it has never been this busy” in the six years she worked there.
“The freezers were full and all eight incinerators were operating 24/7,” the Post reported, citing the receptionist.
“Distinctive vans commonly used as hearses were among vehicles identified in satellite footage and videos verified by The Post. Footage of long lines at night outside funeral homes indicates that some family members have waited overnight to make arrangements for their deceased.”
The New York Times reported that “there are also indications that officials are pressuring doctors and crematories to avoid categorizing even respiratory deaths as virus related.”
“One doctor at a private hospital in Beijing said he and his colleagues found a typed note on a hospital desk in recent days urging them to ‘try not to write respiratory failure caused by Covid’ as the primary cause of death. The note was shared with The New York Times.
“The doctor said it was not clear if the message was generated internally or sent from government officials. But similar warnings have been circulating on Chinese social media telling doctors not to ‘carelessly write Covid’ on death certificates.”
China officially reported only 5,241 COVID-19 deaths for the entire country from the beginning of the pandemic to December 23, 2022. On December 25, China’s national health commission announced that it would no longer report daily COVID-19 data and that the Chinese CDC will provide “relevant pandemic information.” No explanation was given for the move.
Without credible COVID-19 data from China, international experts have tried to make educated guesses of China’s COVID-19 death toll, based on data from other countries and regions.
Several modelers have projected there will be more than a million COVID-19 deaths in China in 2023, according to The Washington Post.
For example, British-based analytics company Airfinity used a model that largely relies on the example of Hong Kong. It predicted there will be 1.7 million COVID-19 deaths in China from January to the end of April this year, and around 9,000 COVID-19 deaths daily. (China’s population is 1.45 billion.)
The U.S.-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projected there will be 323,000 COVID-19 deaths in China by April 1, and “well over 1 million” for the entire year. In a no social-distancing mandate scenario, their model projects 502,000 COVID-19 deaths in China by April 1.
Experts see China’s vast underreporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths as part of Beijing’s efforts to downplay the severity of the outbreak, as the country moves to abruptly dismantle major restrictions under its “zero-COVID” policy following the protests.
“China is most certainly doing their own sampling studies but just not sharing them,” the AP reported on January 6, citing Ray Yip, founder of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control office in China.
“We continue to ask China for more rapid, regular, reliable data on hospitalizations and deaths, as well as more comprehensive, real-time viral sequencing,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the January 4 briefing in Geneva.
Viral sequencing is how new variants of a virus are detected.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, China has given 4,144 sequences to GISAID, a global platform for sharing coronavirus data.
“That’s only 0.04% of its reported number of cases – a rate more than 100 times less than the United States and nearly four times less than neighboring Mongolia,” the AP reported.
So far, no new variants have been detected in the sequences shared by China.
“With circulation in China so high and comprehensive data not forthcoming – as I said last week it is understandable that some countries are taking steps they believe will protect their own citizens,” Tedros said at the briefing.
“Data remains essential for WHO to carry out regular, rapid and robust risk assessments of the global situation,” he said.
China has denounced the testing requirements imposed on Chinese travelers by other governments as unscientific and “excessive,” and threatened countermeasures.
On January 10, Beijing suspended issuing short-term visas in South Korea and Japan in retaliation for those countries’ COVID-19 restrictions on Chinese travelers.