China reports almost 60 000 Covid-related deaths in a month

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China’s health authorities reported on Saturday almost 60 000 Covid-related deaths in just over a month, the first major death toll released by the government since it loosened its virus restrictions in early December.

China has been widely accused of underreporting its number of coronavirus fatalities since the abandonment of its zero-Covid policy.

Only a few dozen deaths had been recorded officially in December before Saturday’s announcement, despite evidence of crematoriums and hospitals being overrun.

But a National Health Commission (NHC) official said on Saturday China had recorded 59 938 Covid-related deaths between 8 December 2022, and 12 January.

The figure refers only to deaths recorded at medical facilities, with the total number likely to be higher.

The data includes 5 503 deaths caused by respiratory failure directly due to the virus, and 54 435 deaths caused by underlying conditions combined with Covid, Jiao Yahui, head of the NHC’s Bureau of Medical Administration, told a news conference.

Health officials insisted Wednesday it was “not necessary” to dwell on the exact number.

Beijing revised its methodology for categorising Covid fatalities last month, saying it would count only those who die specifically of respiratory failure caused by the virus.

This was criticised by the World Health Organisation, which said the new definition was “too narrow”.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the organisation was continuing to “ask China for more rapid, regular, reliable data on hospitalisation and deaths, as well as… viral sequencing”.

Beijing, however, has insisted it has been transparent with the international community about its data, urging the WHO to “uphold a scientific, objective and just position”.