China’s recent COVID surge records nearly 60,000 deaths

The country of 1.4 billion had previously reported over 5,000 COVID-related deaths since December.

China’s recent COVID surge records nearly 60,000 deaths
Patients lie on beds next to closed counters at the emergency department of Zhongshan Hospital, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Shanghai, China January 3, 2023. REUTERS/Staff

The backstory:  In December, China decided to ease up on its zero-COVID stance measures like regular testing, travel restrictions and lockdowns. And last Sunday, the world's second-largest economy officially re-opened its borders. Since then, the number of COVID cases and deaths has shot up, raising concern in China and globally. With this, some countries have imposed mandatory COVID testing for inbound travelers from China.

More recently: The country of 1.4 billion had previously reported over 5,000 COVID-related deaths since December, which is a lot lower than the at least 1 million deaths estimated by international health experts. It's also worth mentioning that these earlier numbers only included deaths from pneumonia and respiratory failure. The WHO and the US have said that China is not being transparent about how bad the outbreak is in the country, and the WHO urged Beijing to share more information with the world.

The development: On Saturday, China reported nearly 60,000 deaths from the virus between December 8 and January 12. An official from China's National Health Commission said this new number includes those who have died from a combination of COVID and other diseases. This is a big jump from China's previous data. Although the WHO was happy to receive the updated numbers, it is still encouraging China to provide more information. Some experts are still questioning how accurate this number is, especially since it only includes hospital deaths, and many COVID deaths may have been underreported overall.

Key comments:

"The reported data indicate a decline in case numbers, hospitalizations, and those requiring critical care," said the WHO about China's latest COVID data.

"The standard is basically in line with those adopted by the World Health Organization and other major countries," said Jiao Yahui, an official with China's National Health Commission, on including deaths of patients with underlying conditions in the new numbers.

"The sharp revision is an official response to international criticism of the lack of transparency and accuracy in China's reporting of COVID-related data," said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to doubts about China's COVID data. "Given the still huge gap between the official count of COVID deaths and the international estimate, I don't think the revision will quell outside doubts on the government data."

"We believe the current numbers being published from China underrepresent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions, in terms of ICU admissions, particularly in terms of death," said Mike Ryan, WHO's emergencies director in early January, referring to China's previous data on the COVID surge and deaths.