China Stops Reporting COVID-19 Numbers as Virus Sweeps Population — H Talk Asia

China’s National Health Commission has announced it will no longer release daily COVID-19 infection numbers as the virus races through the population with the abandonment of ongoing lockdowns, mass tracking of citizens and mandatory testing.

“Starting today, we will no longer release daily statistics on the pandemic, with data released by the China Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reference and research purposes,” the health ministry said on its official website.

The announcement came as China said on Monday that from Jan. 8, 2023, it would end mandatory quarantine on arrival for overseas travelers that has been in place since March 2020.

It also followed a leaked December 20 ministerial document – which analysts say was likely the result of computer modeling in the absence of widespread testing – said around 250 million people could now be infected with COVID-19 after control measures were lifted.

Officials had previously warned that the evolution of the current outbreak would be “impossible to trace” without mass testing.

High-profile pro-government commentator Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, said the figures released in recent days were “seriously biased” and not believed by anyone.

The announcement came amid anecdotal evidence of skyrocketing death rates and overwhelming pressure on hospitals. A hospital in the city of Taizhou recently announced it had had two million emergency room visits over the past few days, while a video clip uploaded to social media by a Shanghai resident on Sunday showed hundreds of people confronting themselves queued to be served at Baoxing Funeral Home in Shanghai, with the line extending out the gate and onto the street.

“That’s what it’s like when you try to take a number,” one person is heard saying over the audio. “You have to come early on Monday to get in line.”

An official of China’s political and judiciary committee system, the law enforcement hierarchy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said the massive pressure on the city’s crematoria has prompted officials from the city’s civil affairs bureau to seize control of the sector.

No one is now allowed to transport the remains of their dead relatives to funeral homes, but must wait for them to be picked up by funeral home staff, the RFA official said on condition of anonymity.

The official said the current wave of infections stems from government pressure to restart the economy after months of damage under Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy and suggests the government is aiming for “herd immunity”.

“They are specifically telling people who have tested positive to go to work to spread the infection as soon as possible,” the official said. “It’s the same across the country now.”

Staffers who answered the phone at several Beijing funeral homes on December 26 confirmed that restrictions on the movement of human remains are being enforced amid a ban on hearses being parked outside crematoria.

Herd immunity with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been described as unlikely by immunology professor Danny Altmann, who described Omicron in a July 1 article in The Guardian as “a sort of stealth virus that gets under the radar without too much do”, described the alarmed immune system.”

“Even with Omicron, we are not well protected from further infections,” wrote Altmann.

Xia Ming, a professor of political science at New York’s City University of New York, said hospitals and healthcare themselves are seen as key drivers of economic growth.

“Everything is for profit and everything is seen as contributing to GDP and the economy,” Xia said. “Chinese leaders believe herd immunity will pull China out of the pandemic and save the economy, but I’m afraid that’s … an illusion.”

“This kind of blind optimism reflects the current state of Chinese politics, which is blind leading the blind,” he said.

Masked commuters walk through a sidewalk between two subway stations as they commute to work during the morning rush hour in Beijing, December 20, 2022. Photo credit: AP Photo

“It’s like a deluge”

In the absence of data, local governments are issuing estimates of case numbers based on computer models, with the eastern city of Qingdao reporting an estimated 500,000 new city infections every day.

A Qingdao resident, who only gave the nickname John, said it was probably an underestimate.

“I think it’s well over 500,000 … it’s moving so fast it’s like a deluge,” he said. “I never expected it to spread so quickly.”

“There’s a hospital near where I live, with vehicles parked out on the street … taking people to get treatment,” he said. “Our whole family is infected.”

Meanwhile, authorities in eastern Zhejiang Province estimated there were more than a million new infections daily across the province, with a similar shortage of morgues and cremation sites at funeral homes.

Officials announced Dec. 25 that new cases are likely to reach two million a day at the peak, which they believe will be around Jan. 1.

Medical professionals told H Talk Asia last week that many of the patients being treated at the hospital have areas of “ground glass opacity” on their lung scans, which was widespread in the early days of the pandemic when people were getting sick from the original strain of COVID-19, stimulating speculation that the Omicron variant and the original strain are now mixing in the general population.

China Stops Reporting COVID-19 Numbers as Virus Sweeps Population — H Talk AsiaA couple wearing protective masks kiss at a hospital fever clinic December 23, 2022 amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in Shanghai, China, December 23, 2022. Credit: Reuters

Limited antivirals for elite

Ren Ruihong, former executive director of the Chinese Red Cross, said a limited amount of Paxlovid is being imported, although the government has consistently refused US help with the current outbreak.

“That means a lot of senior retired officials have died in Beijing… so they promise to send them over [antivirals]’ Ren said. “But nobody’s gotten any yet.”

Ren said it was unclear, however, if there would be enough supplies to treat anyone outside of the Communist Party’s elite.

An official answering the phone of the Beijing Municipal Health Commission declined to comment on last week’s leaked document when contacted by H Talk Asia on Monday.

“Why did you call us? They said we didn’t issue that document… You should try elsewhere,” the officer said.

An official who answered the phone at the National Health Commission also declined to comment.

“We’re not sure what you mean…I don’t know exactly what you’re talking about,” the officer said.

News website Caixin reported on Dec. 24 that medical workers are being dispatched to Beijing to help local colleagues treat critically ill patients amid the current outbreak.

However, it quoted a doctor who said it wouldn’t help to move medical workers across the country when the outbreak was just as severe elsewhere in China.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.