Since China abandoned its restrictive “zero Covid” policy about two weeks ago, the intensity and scale of the country’s first nationwide outbreak has largely remained a mystery. As the country ends mass testing, case numbers are less useful. The government has a narrow definition of what deaths should be considered caused by Covid. Anecdotal evidence, such as social media posts of morgues overflowing with body bags, is quickly removed by censors.
A picture is now emerging in which the virus is spreading like wildfire.
One province and three cities have reported Covid estimates in recent days that far exceed official figures. At a news conference on Sunday, an official in Zhejiang province, home to 65 million people, estimated daily Covid cases there had surpassed one million.
In the eastern city of Qingdao, home to 10 million people, a health minister on Friday said there were about half a million new cases every day, a number he expects to rise sharply in the coming days, local news sites reported.
In Dongguan, a city of seven million people in central Guangdong Province, a report by the Municipal Health Commission on Friday estimated between 250,000 and 300,000 new cases daily.
And in northwestern Shaanxi province, officials in Yulin, a city of around 3.6 million people, recorded 157,000 infected on Friday, with models estimating more than a third of the city’s population had already been infected, according to local media.
Those figures stand in sharp contrast to those from China’s National Health Commission, which on Friday reported about 4,000 Covid cases for the country as a whole. It’s also a contrast to the picture the ruling Communist Party has presented since its abrupt about-face on Covid policy in early December. Health experts and state media have downplayed the seriousness of Covid, focusing on stories of recovery rather than serious illnesses. The result was a one-sided account of an outbreak that some experts believe could cause over a million deaths in the coming months.
Understand the situation in China
The Communist Party scrapped the restrictive “zero Covid” policy that sparked mass protests that posed a rare challenge to the communist leadership.
China has acknowledged just seven Covid deaths and a few thousand new cases every day in the past two weeks, in what health experts say is a huge undercount.
On Sunday, China’s national health commission announced without justification that it would no longer provide daily Covid data. The Chinese Center for Disease Control would provide that information, the commission said, without specifying how often.
Karen Grepin, a public health expert at the University of Hong Kong, estimates that China could face tens of millions of new cases every day, based on estimates extrapolated from the outbreak in Hong Kong earlier this year.
According to the Dongguan Health Commission report, hospitals and medical staff are facing “unprecedented challenges”. It said last week more than 2,500 city health workers went to work with either confirmed Covid infections or high fevers. At a Dongguan hospital, about half of the 3,000 health workers were infected, the report said.
Qian Jun, deputy director of Dongguan Health Center, described the overburdened health system as “a tragic situation.”
In Qingdao, makeshift medical facilities rationed health kits consisting of 10 ibuprofen tablets and two rapid antigen tests per person, local news media reported.
Jin Dong-Yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said while many countries have had problems with under-reporting of major outbreaks for a variety of reasons, such as: B. asymptomatic cases or false incentives to report, the official figures from the Chinese central government are as far off as disingenuous.
“This is unacceptable,” Professor Jin said. “They have to catch up on that at some point – and the sooner, the better.”
As the gap between official data and public perception grows, so does ridicule on the internet. When Heilongjiang Province reported five Covid cases in early December, one online commenter noted that he was personally aware of all of the cases.
Even Hu Xijin, the former editor of the Communist Party newspaper Global Times, criticized the official figures. In a WeChat blog published on Saturday, he praised the bold reporting from Qingdao, contrasting it with official case numbers that “differed far from the public’s experience.”
Such metrics lead to an “erosion of the credibility of official statistics,” he wrote.
China’s outbreak is not only straining the credibility of its government and healthcare system, but also its ability to provide essential antipyretic drugs. Millions now face the prospect of going without as pharmacies run out of the most effective medicines. In Yulin, authorities ordered pharmacies to ration ibuprofen and other antipyretic drugs, allowing customers to buy no more than a three-day supply.
Some officials have gone further. At least two Chinese pharmaceutical companies told the New York Times that authorities had confiscated their stocks of ibuprofen and acetaminophen and prevented them from supplying their usual customers.
Such moves are a reminder of what happened to mask makers nearly three years ago at the start of the pandemic. The actions then seemed broader, encompassing not only Chinese-owned companies but also multinationals such as N95 mask maker 3M, which is based in St. Paul, Minnesota but has long operated a mask factory in Shanghai.
Taken together, the shortage of medicines and high case numbers in far-flung cities in recent days paint a picture of a virus spreading much faster than experts had estimated, Professor Jin said.
“We anticipated explosive outbreaks,” he said, “but this is much, much more devastating than the one in Hong Kong earlier this year.”
Keith Bradsher, Li You and Zixu Wang provided reports and research.