Coronavirus News Asia

China’s Covid-19 numbers, with caveats

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With so much still unknown about how many people are spreading the Covid-19 coronavirus without showing symptoms, and with testing for infection lagging, we are all understandably looking for figures we can rely on to help gauge the spread of the pandemic within our communities.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) is one popular source, but its figures on confirmed cases (more than 3.5 million worldwide) are understandably conservative, given that the more you test, the more positive cases arise.  

More indicative of the trajectory of the disease are the number of deaths, which are estimated at some 250,000 worldwide. However, since many deaths due to Covid-19 occur outside a hospital, and many have died without being diagnosed with Covid-19, many nations, including Italy, Spain, the UK and the US, have struggled to obtain true mortality numbers.  

To get a more accurate picture of how Covid-19 is killing people, Western media have begun examining excess deaths, or the number of deaths exceeding normal levels during the pandemic, compared with the same period in previous years. 

The New York Times reported in March its analysis showing at least 46,000 excess deaths in 14 countries, while a Financial Times analysis showed excess death tolls of 122,000 in 14 countries – some 60% higher than official estimates. While many countries struggle to compile accurate figures on the spread of Covid-19, other authoritarian countries are loath to admit the extent the disease has penetrated their populace. 

Official numbers from China

One such authoritarian country is China. Despite having most of the earliest cases, the official numbers from Beijing are significantly lower than those of smaller countries. The latest figures from Beijing report some 84,000 confirmed cases and 4,643 deaths, after an additional 1,290 deaths (a nearly 50% increase) were attributed to Covid-19 in Wuhan in mid-April because of “belated, missed and mistaken reporting.”  

The revised figures still leave China with one of the lowest numbers of deaths (3) per million population, compared with Italy (485), Spain (548) and the US (218). Keep in mind that before the lockdown of Wuhan in late January, some 5 million residents left the city for Spring Festival, many returning to their home towns. Yet despite the outflow of domestic travelers, some 84% of all deaths in China are attributed to Wuhan.   

Inability to trust or verify

The seemingly low numbers quoted above have led many nations, including Australia, France, Germany, Iran, the UK and the US, to question the official numbers from Beijing.  Americans, whose government was admittedly slow to react to news of the outbreak, are particularly perplexed why the US, which now accounts for some 27% of all deaths, despite having only some 4% of the world population.  

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