A medical official from China’s National Health Commission (NHC) told a press conference in Beijing on Saturday that close to 60,000 people had died of COVID-19 and illnesses where COVID was an underlying factor from Dec. 7, when “zero-COVID” restrictions were lifted, to Jan. 12.
While that number represents a 12-fold increase in the “official” number of dead announced by the Chinese, many experts believe the death toll is still far higher, because the government only included people who died in hospital.
Now, with the Lunar New Year celebration coming on Jan. 21, there are fears that the biggest migration of human beings on the planet — two billion trips taken by Chinese citizens during the holidays — will result in another huge spike in deaths. And the already overwhelmed hospitals could hardly cope with another surge in patients.
As you might expect, China’s surge in COVID deaths occurred among the elderly and the sick.
The average age of those who died was 80.3 years and more than 90% of them had other diseases including cardiovascular diseases, advanced tumors and metabolic diseases, the commission said. The number of deaths of the elderly is relatively high because of increased incidence of respiratory diseases and aggravation of cardiovascular diseases in the winters among older people, said Jiao Yahui, an official at the commission. That, coupled with Covid infections, aggravated the situation, Jiao said.
There has been an ongoing debate among public health authorities about what exactly constitutes a “COVID death.” We know that COVID-19 attacks the human body with a ferocity that at first baffled doctors. Most healthy people’s natural immune systems can fight off a COVID infection while it’s still lodged in the throat, where it will eventually be overwhelmed by our body’s defenses. But in someone whose immune systems are compromised because of age, diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease, COVID goes on a rampage, tearing through the lungs, attacking the lining of the heart, and generally making a hash of the rest of our organs. Death isn’t certain, but it’s far more likely.
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China decided that only deaths from respiratory failure would be counted as COVID deaths. The U.S. and the WHO complained that limiting the number of COVID deaths using that criterion was ludicrous.
The shortfall in reported numbers was due to stringent definitions of how a death is attributed to Covid in China. Only people who died of respiratory failure were counted. The World Health Organization last week criticised the new definition as too narrow and warned that it was an under-representation of the true impact of the outbreak. But Chinese authorities responded that it was not necessary to attribute every death to Covid.
Perhaps the reason the Communists came clean was that the evidence of a catastrophic death toll was impossible to hide anymore. There’s also the deterrence factor. If China’s citizens are aware of a large death toll, many of them may think twice about taking a trip over the Lunar New Year to see loved ones — especially elderly parents.
The one bit of good news is that no additional variants of COVID-19 have emerged yet. But this bug has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and evade our efforts to defeat it. We can expect that to continue.