The rate of COVID-19 infections may have exceeded 50 percent in Chinese provinces and large cities and reached as high as 80 percent in the capital city of Beijing, the country’s health experts and officials estimated, painting a picture much grimmer than what the nation’s central authorities disclosed and fueling distrust around the world.
“The infection rate of the current COVID wave is already very high, with many large cities seeing it exceed 50 percent,” Zhang Wenhong, director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, said on Dec. 29 at an online forum. That may reach up to 80 percent during China’s Lunar New Year in late January, the expert estimated, as a huge number of people normally travel around the country for family reunions.
China is grappling with an explosive COVID-19 outbreak on the heels of the abrupt retreat from the zero-COVID policy long championed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since the outbreak first hit Wuhan three years ago, the CCP had vowed to eliminate every infection among communities through repeated testings, swift lockdowns, prolonged quarantine, and digital surveillance in spite of growing economic and human tolls. State media and officials repeatedly warned the Chinese public of catastrophic outcomes—such as millions of COVID-related deaths—if they abandon the curbs and opt to live with the virus like the West.
But following widespread protests against the tightened curbs in late November, the regime suddenly stopped the efforts to control the pandemic and dismantled most of its hallmark zero-COVID policy. State media moved at a quick speed to portray the Omicron variant as a flu-like mild virus as COVID spread unabated through China’s 1.4 billion population with low natural immunity after three years of harsh lockdown.
Officially, China has reported thousands of daily infections and a handful of deaths. But on the ground, ill-prepared hospitals across the nation were overwhelmed with patients, forcing doctors to continue duty while sick. Medicines for reducing fever and coughing were left out of stock. Funeral workers described an influx of bodies waiting to be cremated.
“We didn’t expect the first wave to be this vehement,” Zeng Guang, former chief epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told a separate online panel on Dec. 29, according to state media.
Over 80 percent of Beijing residents, or 17.6 million people, may have already been infected with COVID, Zeng estimated. That percentage could be even higher, he added.
It is hard to know the exact number of COVID infections or deaths in China. Official tallies are often obscured, as doubts grow over their credibility. Last week, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) stopped publishing COVID infections and fatalities every day. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a department directly under NHC, publishes relevant outbreak information “for reference and research.”
Infection Rate Exceeding 50 Percent
In the absence of reliable COVID figures, outside scientists have turned to regional data, which give significantly higher numbers than the nationwide infection and death tolls registered by the central health authorities, to assess the impact on the global economy and the health of the world.
Several provinces and cities recently estimated more than half of their residents were infected, based on survey results. From the northernmost province of Heilongjiang to the southernmost of Hainan, dozens of provinces and large cities across the nation have turned to online surveys to gauge the scale of the outbreak after the regime lifted the mass testing requirement and allowed people to report antigen test results at home voluntarily.
A study in Hainan showed the COVID infection rate on the tropical island exceeded 50 percent. With a population of 10 million, the infected may have reached 5 million.
Health authorities in Hainan have been sending out a second round of questionnaires on Wechat to poll residents’ experience with COVID-19. By Dec. 27, the Hainan Center for Disease Control and Prevention received over 33,000 responses, officials said at Dec. 30 briefing.
The infection rate in the southwestern province of Sichuan, which has a population of more than 84 million, is over 63 percent. The actual rate should be much higher given that nearly 30 percent of 158,000 respondents showing fever, cough, or other COVID-19 symptoms didn’t take antigen or PCR tests, the authorities said in a Dec. 26 statement.
That figure coincidentally corresponds with a leaked memo from an internal meeting of the country’s top health officials. Half the population in Sichuan, as well as Beijing, had tested positive in the first 20 days of December, according to the leaked notes confirmed by several news outlets.
The wave of infections has yet to peak in many regions. Wu Zunyou, China’s chief epidemiologist, said at Dec. 29 press conference that the outbreak in Beijing, Tianjin, and Sichuan’s Chengdu may have hit the peak. But Shanghai and several provinces in central and south China are still seeing surging COVID infections, Wu added.
Official Data Faces Skepticism
At the Hankou funeral home on the outskirts of Wuhan, an intermittent stream of mourners and hearse drivers were arriving on New Year’s Day.
Staff at the site’s heavily guarded entrance declined to answer questions about their recent workloads. But funeral homes in other cities in China—including Chengdu and Beijing—said that they were busier than ever since the regime’s sudden reopening last month.
The grim picture is in sharp contrast to the tiny official death toll. China reported one new COVID-19 death in the mainland for Dec. 31, the same as a day earlier, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said on Sunday.
China had only acknowledged 11 COVID deaths since Dec. 7, when the regime abruptly reversed course and loosened its strict zero-COVID policy. Health officials recently explained they only counted individuals dying from respiratory failure caused by COVID-19, excluding deaths from other diseases and conditions even if the deceased had tested positive for the virus.
“I believe the definition [of COVID death] in China is quite narrow,” Mike Ryan, emergencies director at the World Health Organisation, said at Dec. 21 briefing. Such criteria “will very much underestimate the true death toll associated with COVID,” he added.
Airfinity, a British-based health analytics firm, estimated as many as 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from COVID. Cumulative deaths in China since Dec. 1 have likely reached 100,000 with infections totaling 18.6 million, researchers said on Dec. 29.
Facing growing skepticism over the reliability of the official statistics, Wu told reporters at the same briefing last Thursday that the difference between the number of deaths in the current wave of infections and the death rate for the same period in pandemic-free years would be studied to calculate the “excess mortality” and gauge any potential underestimate of deaths from COVID-19.
Jitters Around the World
Since the onset of the pandemic, the communist regime has drawn mounting criticism for its covering up of COVID-related information in a bid to downplay news that it deems harmful to its image. Amid the current explosive outbreak, the lack of transparent data has prompted international concern, particularly regarding the possibility of a new, stronger variant emerging out of China.
Australia and Canada became the latest countries to require travelers from China to provide negative COVID-19 tests upon arrival. The United States, Britain, France, South Korea, and several other countries have all imposed similar measures. Morocco will impose a ban on people arriving from China, its foreign ministry said.
Global Times, a Chinese state-run tabloid, has railed against the growing number of foreign governments imposing COVID tests on travelers from China, calling the restrictions “discriminatory.”
The new entry requirements for arrivals from China came as the regime announced last week it would reopen its borders from Jan. 8.
“I want to stress that the government welcomes the resumption of travel between Australia and China … I also want to stress that this is a temporary measure, reflecting the lack of comprehensive information right now about the situation in China,” said Australian health minister Mark Butler.
Reuters contributed to this report.