BEIJING — Chinese health authorities on Monday announced two additional COVID-19 deaths, both in the capital Beijing, that were the first reported in weeks and come during an expected surge of illnesses after the nation eased its strict “zero-COVID” approach.
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 past 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, excluding people whose underlying conditions such as diabetes and heart disease were worsened by the virus.
In many other countries, guidelines stipulate that any death where the coronavirus is a factor or contributor is counted as a COVID-19-related death.
The announcement comes amid testimony 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.
China had long hailed its hardline “zero-COVID” approach as keeping numbers of cases and deaths relatively low — comparing itself favorably to the U.S., where the death toll has topped 1.1 million.
Yet, the policy of lockdowns, travel restrictions, mandatory testing and quarantines placed China’s society and the national economy under enormous stress, apparently convincing 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 with mass testing 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.
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 virus’ 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 to persuade reluctant seniors and others at risk to get vaccinated, apparently with only moderate success. 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 home towns.
Numbers of fever clinics have been expanded in both urban and rural areas and people have been asked to stay home unless seriously ill to preserve resources. Hospitals are also running short on staff, and reports say workers have been asked to return to their posts as long as they aren’t feverish.