Covid-19 infections and death toll in China spikes as outbreak explodes

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Deaths attributed to Covid-19 in China have spiked to 9000 people each day, a data firm says, as the virus spreads rapidly.

British-based research firm Airfinity has doubled the number of people it estimates are dying from Covid in China as the number of infections soars. It comes after Beijing lifted draconian zero-Covid health measures in November that had been in place for years.

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The harsh lockdowns sparked protests across China and intensified after 10 people died in a unit fire. There were allegations firefighters were delayed from coming inside the apartment block due to a quarantine order.

Beijing reversed its Covid policy after protests spread to at least nine cities across China.

Airfinity said its model was based on data from China’s regional provinces before changes to reporting infections were implemented, combined with case growth rates from other former zero-Covid countries when they lifted restrictions.

Covid explosion in China

The cumulative number of deaths in China that can be linked to Covid in December may have hit 100,000, with at least 18.6 million cases. There could be as many as 3.7 million cases a day by mid-January.

A grim total of 584,000 deaths is expected by January 23.

Beijing has been accused of withholding health information so it’s hard to accurately assess the numbers.

However, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) last week confirmed the country’s current outbreak is the largest the world has ever seen.

A report by The Australian estimates more than a billion Chinese could be infected with Covid by March. And more than 30 per cent of the population may have already been infected — up to 400 million people.

And the virus is set to continue to spread rapidly. Workers with Covid are being told to go to work, unless they have extreme symptoms.

The NHC reported about 37 million people in China were estimated to have been infected with Covid on a single day and that 248 million people were infected in the first 20 days of December.

Soon after those estimations numbers were released, Beijing announced it would stop reporting its daily Covid case numbers.

Previously, the NHC reported an implausible seven deaths in the past three weeks and, as of December 23, its daily case numbers sat at only 4103.

If those numbers are to be believed, that would mean China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has fewer cases than in Australia, with a population of 26 million.

And the World Health Organisation (WHO) says China’s numbers don’t add up.

“In China, what’s been reported is relatively low numbers of cases in ICUs, but anecdotally ICUs are filling up,” WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said recently.

He gave Beijing the benefit of the doubt, adding: “I wouldn’t like to say that China is actively not telling us what’s going on. I think they’re behind the curve.”

Doctors and health officials have reportedly been told to downplay the outbreak. The Japan Times reports a doctor at a private hospital in Beijing revealed that he discovered a typed note on a hospital desk urging staff to “try not to write respiratory failure caused by Covid” as the primary cause of death.

Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Australian the outbreak was fast-moving. “It’s unbelievable. The scale, the speed,” he said.

Despite its hospitals and morgues being overwhelmed — and international concern over the low official figures on infections and deaths there — China is insisting that it has been transparent in sharing its Covid-19 data.

On Wednesday, a senior US health official said Beijing had provided only limited data to global databases about variants circulating in China, and its testing and reporting on new cases had diminished.

On Thursday, the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also urged China to be more forthcoming on the pandemic. It was “understandable” that some countries had introduced restrictions in response to its Covid-19 surge, he said.

But on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin insisted: “Since the outbreak of the epidemic, China has been sharing relevant information and data with the international community, including WHO, in an open and transparent manner.

“We shared the sequence of the new coronavirus at the first instance, thus making important contributions to the development of relevant vaccines (and) drugs in other countries.” Nevertheless, Spain, South Korea and Israel on Friday became the latest countries to impose mandatory coronavirus tests on visitors from China.

They join Italy, Japan, India, Malaysia, Taiwan and the United States in requiring negative Covid tests for all travellers from mainland China, in a bid to avoid importing new variants from the Asian giant.

Chinese state media reacted furiously to the restrictions.

“… the real intention is to sabotage China’s three years of COVID-19 control efforts and attack the country’s system,” the Global Times stated in a report.

It also published a cartoon attacking Japan for its policies targeting Chinese citizens.

The paper described the restrictions as “unfounded” and “discriminatory.”

Different European approaches

In Beijing, Wang argued that health experts in several countries had decided there was no need to impose entry restrictions on travellers from China.

The European Union’s infectious disease agency said on Thursday such restrictions were not warranted for the moment, due to the high levels of immunity in the EU and European Economic Area.

Germany seemed to take that on board Friday, saying it did not currently see the need to impose routine tests on arrivals from China But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach did argue for a co-ordinated EU-wide system to monitor variants across European airports.

“We need a European solution,” he said.

A co-ordinated approach would make it easier to detect new variants of the coronavirus quickly and take appropriate measures, he added.

And while routine tests were “not yet necessary” for arrivals from China, that could change given that data from China could not be reliably obtained.

Justifying the restrictions Spain had decided to impose, Health Minister Carolina Darias said: “A major concern lies in the possibility of new variants appearing in China that have not been controlled.

“Given the health situation in that country, we know the importance of acting with co-ordination, but also the importance of acting quickly,” she added.

Rival estimates

With the end of mass testing however and the narrowing of criteria for what counts as a Covid fatality, China’s numbers are no longer believed to reflect reality.

Jiao Yahui, from China’s National Health Commission, insisted on Thursday that Beijing had always published data “on Covid-19 deaths and severe cases in the spirit of openness and transparency”.

China said this month it would end mandatory quarantine for people arriving in the country and that it had abandoned strict measures to contain the virus.

The world’s most populous country will downgrade its management of Covid-19 from January 8, treating it as a Class B infection rather than a more serious Class A.

– with AFP and staff writers

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