Beijing: Facing growing skepticism that it is downplaying COVID deaths, the Chinese government defended the accuracy of its official tally by revealing it had updated its method of counting fatalities caused by the virus, reported CNN.
According to the latest guidelines from the National Health Commission, only those whose death is caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus are classified as COVID deaths, said Wang Guiqiang, a top infectious disease doctor.
He said those deemed to have died due to another disease or underlying condition, such as in the event of a heart attack, will not be counted as a virus death, even if they were sick with COVID at the time, reported CNN.
WHO on China's counting of COVID deaths
Commenting on China's criteria for counting COVID deaths on Wednesday, the World Health Organization's emergency chief Michael Ryan said the definition was 'quite narrow'.
"People who die of COVID die from many different (organ) systems' failures, given the severity of infection," Ryan said, adding, "So limiting a diagnosis of death from COVID to someone with a COVID positive test and respiratory failure will very much underestimate the true death toll associated with COVID."
According to Wang, the Chinese doctor, the change in the definition was necessitated by the mild nature of Omicron, which is different from the Wuhan strain at the start of the pandemic, when most patients died from pneumonia and respiratory failure.
But Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, pointed out that this is more or less the same strict criteria Chinese authorities have used to tally COVID deaths all along, reported CNN.
The definition was only slightly broadened in April this year to include some COVID patients, who died of underlying conditions during the Shanghai lockdown in order to justify the draconian restrictions, Jin said.
Shanghai COVID outbreak
During Shanghai's outbreak from March to May, city officials reported 588 COVID deaths from some 600,000 infections. But once the city's lockdown lifted, the nationwide death toll remained at zero for the next six months, despite the number of infections reaching into hundreds of thousands.
In late November, Beijing announced three octogenarians had died of underlying conditions with COVID, just as the city ramped up its own COVID restrictions amid a widening outbreak.
According to Jin, these inconsistencies reveal China's method of counting COVID deaths to be 'entirely subjective'.
"The death data has been misleading from the start," he said.
COVID-death counting: A topic of debate
Counting deaths from COVID versus deaths with COVID has been a topic of debate worldwide since the start of the pandemic, said Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.
Most countries, including the United States, decided it's too difficult to evaluate every single death to know whether COVID was a factor and counted deaths with COVID in their official death tolls, Cowling said.
But he pointed out the debate over how to count COVID deaths would be overshadowed by a bigger issue in China -- namely, there is very little PCR testing after the government rolled back mass testing, reported CNN.
"We know there are many, many COVID deaths already occurring. And those are not being counted with the Chinese method or with the American method, because the testing is not being done," he said.
"The substantial reduction in testing would have a greater effect on the death statistics that we're going to see in the coming one to two months." he added.
Coronavirus wreaks havoc in China
As an unprecedented wave of infections rips through China, its state media is deliberately ignoring scenes of crowded hospital wards and packed crematoriums unfolding at home, while officials insist that by the government's own count, few people are dying of COVID, reported CNN.
For nearly three years, China's hardline zero-COVID policy shielded its population from the kind of mass deaths that haunted Western nations -- a contrast repeatedly driven home by the Communist Party to illustrate the supposed superiority of its rule.
But as China abruptly abandoned that strategy, with little warning or apparent preparation, the prospect of surging deaths -- projected by some studies to be as high as one million -- has become a thorny issue for a government that staked its legitimacy on 'saving lives', reported CNN.
Officially, China reported only eight COVID deaths this month -- a meager figure given the rapid spread of the virus and the relatively low vaccine booster rates among the vulnerable elderly.
The official tally has been met with disbelief and ridicule online, where posts mourning loved ones dying of COVID abound.
Caixin, a Chinese financial magazine known for its investigative pieces, reported on the deaths of two veteran state media journalists infected with COVID, on days the official toll stood at zero.
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