The World Health Organization (WHO) has received no data from China on new Covid-19 hospitalisations since Beijing lifted its zero-Covid policy, prompting some health experts to question whether it might be hiding information on the extent of its outbreak.
However, the WHO has said gaps in data might be due to Chinese authorities simply struggling to tally cases.
WHO weekly reports showed rising hospitalisations for Covid-19 in China running up to Beijing’s December 7th decision to ease restrictions on movement that were meant to stamp out any transmission of the virus but which prompted extraordinary public protests and hobbled the world’s second largest economy.
They peaked at 28,859 through to December 4th, according to a WHO graph, the highest reported figure in China since the Covid-19 first emerged three years ago, but figures have been absent in the last two reports.
As of 4.19pm Irish time on December 21st, more than 650 million cases of Covid-19 have been reported to the WHO globally, along with more than 6.6 million deaths.
WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris said to direct questions about data reporting to the country concerned. China’s diplomatic mission in Geneva did not respond to Reuters questions.
China has been routinely accused of downplaying its Covid outbreak and some experts say its narrow criteria for identifying deaths will underestimate the true toll. Some estimates predict large numbers of deaths ahead and China has been racing to bolster its health system.
Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University who follows the WHO closely, called the missing data “highly suspicious”.
“What it tells me is that China is hiding data that are vital for understanding the full impact of its decision to end its zero-COVID strategy,” he told Reuters.
Adam Kamradt-Scott, professor of Global Public Health at the European University Institute, said countries frequently tried to hide the extent of disease outbreaks.
“It’s hard to criticise China when there’s other countries that haven’t reported Covid cases [at all],” he said.
WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan has pointed to possible capacity issues. “I wouldn’t like to say that China is actively not telling us what’s going on. I think they’re behind the curve,” he said.
Global rules on disease outbreaks require countries to communicate information on ongoing outbreaks but they cannot be enforced.
Earlier, China reported no new Covid-19 deaths for December 21st for the second day running.
The country reported 3,030 new symptomatic Covid-19 infections on December 21st , compared with 3,101 a day earlier. As of December 21st, mainland China had confirmed 389,306 cases with symptoms.
A Shanghai hospital has told its staff to prepare for a “tragic battle” with Covid-19 as it expects half of the city’s 25 million people to get infected by the end of the year while the virus sweeps through China largely unchecked.
After widespread protests and a relentless rise in cases, China this month took an abrupt shift in policies and began dismantling its zero-Covid regime, which has taken a great financial and psychological toll on its 1.4 billion people.
Still, China’s official death count since the pandemic began in early 2020 stands at 5,241 - a fraction of what most other countries faced.
China reported no new Covid deaths for a second consecutive day for December 21st, even as funeral parlour workers say demand has jumped in the past week, pushing fees higher.
The Shanghai Deji Hospital, posting on its official WeChat account late on Wednesday, estimated there were about 5.43 million positives in the city and that 12.5 million in China’s main commercial hub will get infected by the end of the year.
“This year’s Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day, and the Lunar New Year are destined to be unsafe,” the hospital said.
“In this tragic battle, the entire Greater Shanghai will fall, and we will infect all the staff of the hospital! We will infect the whole family! Our patients will all be infected! We have no choice, and we cannot escape.”
In an effort to prevent the virus from letting rip across China, Shanghai residents endured a two-month lockdown that ended on June 1st, with many losing income and having poor access to basic necessities. Hundreds died and hundreds of thousands were infected during those two months.
Experts say China could face more than a million Covid deaths next year.
The head of the World Health Organisation said it is concerned about the spike in infections and is supporting the government to focus on vaccinating those at the highest risk.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters the agency needed more detailed information on disease severity, hospital admissions and requirements for intensive care units for a comprehensive assessment.
China’s policy U-turn caught a fragile health system unprepared, with hospitals scrambling for beds and blood, pharmacies for drugs and authorities racing to build special clinics.
Smaller cities away from the affluent eastern and southern coast are particularly vulnerable. Tongchuan, a city of 700,000 in the northwestern Shaanxi province, called on Wednesday for all medical workers who retired in the past five years to join the battle against Covid. – Reuters