China has officially reported its first COVID-19-related deaths since the government began dismantling strict anti-virus controls, feeding anxiety this could be the start of a grim trend as the virus rips through the country.
Monday’s two deaths were the first to be reported by the National Health Commission (NHC) since December 3, days before Beijing announced it was abandoning curbs that had largely kept the virus in check for three years but triggered widespread protests last month.
On Saturday, a Reuters journalist in Beijing saw hearses carrying dead people lining the driveway to a designated COVID-19 crematorium and about 20 yellow body bags containing corpses on the floor of an adjacent funeral parlour.
Reuters could not immediately establish if the deaths were due to COVID-19.
Officially China has suffered just 5237 COVID-related deaths during the pandemic, including the latest two fatalities, a tiny fraction of its 1.4 billion population and very low by global standards.
The NHC also reported 1995 symptomatic infections for December 18, compared with 2097 a day earlier.
It stopped reporting asymptomatic cases last week, citing a drop in mandatory PCR testing after China’s policy shift.
There is growing doubt China’s data is capturing the fast-worsening situation on the ground.
A hashtag on the two reported COVID-19 deaths quickly became the top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform on Monday.
“What is the point of incomplete statistics?” asked one user.
“Isn’t this cheating the public?” wrote another.
Workers at a dozen funeral homes in Beijing told Reuters on Saturday they were busier than normal.
Respected Chinese news outlet Caixin on Friday reported two state media journalists had died after contracting COVID and on Saturday, that a 23-year-old medical student had also died.
It was not immediately clear which, if any, of these deaths were included in official death tolls.
The NHC did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters on the accuracy of its data.
As China moves to align with a world that has largely opened up in an effort to live with the virus, it could now pay a price for shielding a population that lacks natural immunity and has low vaccination rates among the elderly, health experts say.
Some say China’s COVID death toll could rise to more than 1.5 million in the coming months.
In the Shijingshan district of Beijing, medical workers have been going door-to-door offering to vaccinate elderly residents in their homes, China’s Xinhua news agency reported on Sunday.
Officially, China’s vaccination rate is more than 90 per cent but the rate for adults who have had boosters drops to 57.9 per cent and to 42.3 per cent for people aged 80 and over, according to government data.
Overseas-developed vaccines are not available to the general public in mainland China, which has relied on inactivated shots by local manufacturers for its vaccine rollout.
While China’s medical community, in general, doesn’t doubt the safety of China’s vaccines, some say questions remain over their efficacy compared to foreign-made mRNA counterparts.