China on Thursday defended its handling of the “Covid tidal wave” that has swamped the country amid more concern voiced by the World Health Organisation.
More than a dozen other nations have said Chinese citizens must undertake pre-departure Covid tests before they fly to their cities amid widespread belief that Beijing has been under-reporting virus deaths.
The WHO’s emergencies director, Mike Ryan, said on Wednesday in some of the UN health agency’s most critical remarks to date, that Chinese officials were under-representing data on several fronts.
China scrapped its stringent Covid controls early last month after multiple spontaneous protests against them, abandoning its tough zero-Covid policy that had shielded its 1.4 billion population from the virus for three years.
China denies lying
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular press briefing in Beijing that China had transparently and quickly shared Covid data with the WHO.
Mao said that China’s “epidemic situation is controllable” and that it hoped the WHO would “uphold a scientific, objective, and impartial position”.
China reported one new Covid death in the mainland for Wednesday, compared with five a day earlier, bringing its official death toll to 5,259. This clashes wildly with feedback from local hospital staff and health analytics groups.
International health experts predict at least 1 million Covid-related deaths in China this year without urgent action. British-based health data firm Airfinity has estimated about 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from Covid – and that the death rate is likely to double next week as millions more are infected.
The WHO’s Ryan said on Wednesday the numbers China was publishing under-represented hospital admissions, intensive care unit patients and deaths.
Hours later, US President Joe Biden also raised concern about China’s handling of a Covid outbreak that is filling hospitals and overwhelming some funeral homes. “They’re very sensitive … when we suggest they haven’t been that forthcoming,” Biden told reporters while on a visit to Kentucky.
The French health minister voiced similar fears, while German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach voiced concern about a new Covid subvariant linked to growing hospitalisations in the northeastern United States.
Packed hospitals, crematoriums
The United States is one of more than a dozen countries that have imposed restrictions on travellers from China.
China has criticised such border controls as unreasonable and unscientific and the government said on Thursday that its border with its special administrative region of Hong Kong would also reopen on Sunday, for the first time in three years.
Millions of people will be travelling within China later this month for the Lunar New Year holiday.
China’s government has played down the severity of the situation and the state-run Global Times said cited doctors in an article on Wednesday asa saying that Covid had peaked in several cities including Beijing.
But at a hospital in Shanghai’s suburban Qingpu district, patients on beds lined the corridors of the emergency treatment area and main lobby on Thursday, most of them elderly and several breathing with oxygen tanks, a Reuters witness said.
A notice on a board advised that patients would have to wait an average of five hours to be seen. Staff declared one elderly patient dead and pinned a note to the body on the floor stating the cause of death “respiratory failure”.
Police patrolled outside a nearby crematorium, where a stream of mourners carried wreathes and waited to collect the ashes of loved ones.
‘Covid Tidal Wave’ Yet to Peak
Meanwhile, top China analyst, China Beige Book CEO Leland Miller, said the country had been hit by a “Covid tidal wave”. In a televised interview with Yahoo Finance he said his group believed China only achieved economic growth of about 2.2% last year – half of what the president suggested in a New Year address.
“The ’22 economy is a disaster for the year. And so I think that is why President Xi was under great pressure to toss out Covid-zero, deal with some pretty rapid Covid spread, and then hopefully come out on the other side early next year with a recovering economy,” Miller said.
The abrupt dumping of zero-Covid, after the president secured a third term in office was “very mysterious” and did not make a lot of sense, he said, because there should have been more preparation, with either a vaccine rollout, or targeting the elderly with a vaccination campaign, therapeutics rollout and building more ICU beds.
“So it doesn’t look like they were preparing for the U-turn until the protests hit… But what we do know is eventually the pressure got to [the president], and now he pulled back Covid-zero with very little preparation. And that’s why we’re seeing a Covid tidal wave right now.
“It really is amazing the degree to which Covid is spreading across China right now. I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams imagined Xi’s goal would be to lock down the country for almost three years and then suddenly let it rip, and everybody gets Covid in the matter of two months. But that seems to be what’s happening.”
However, the analyst said there was potential for recovery in the second quarter, although he noted that China was big and had a lot of rural areas. “So I think by the time we get closer to the second quarter, we’ll be seeing a turn, but not quite yet.”
“Covid is a dominant story right now. [It’s] hard to stimulate anything during a Covid tidal wave.”
- Reuters with additional editing and reporting by Jim Pollard