The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China sharply revises death toll linked to covid outbreak to 60,000 from 37

Commuters wearing face masks walk along a street in the central business district in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
3 min

China on Saturday made a significant revision of its official death toll in the latest outbreak of the coronavirus — to nearly 60,000 deaths linked to covid-19 since December, when pandemic restrictions were lifted and infections surged across the country, up from just 37.

The announcement follows criticism by international health experts and complaints by citizens that the government has been understating the number of deaths caused by the virus.

Authorities have recently come under added scrutiny following reports of overwhelmed funeral homes and hospitals. A report by The Washington Post last week documented a surge in traffic outside funeral homes, according to satellite imagery, firsthand videos and interviews with crematorium staff and residents.

China's National Health Commission said that nearly 60,000 people died of covid since the dismantling of the zero-covid policy in early December. (Video: Reuters)

The National Health Commission said in a news briefing that hospitals recorded at least 59,938 covid-19-related deaths between Dec. 8 and Jan. 12. Of those deaths, 5,503 involved respiratory failure caused by the virus, and the rest of the deaths were caused by underlying diseases combined with covid-19. The average age of patients who had died was 80.3 years old.

China had previously reported just 37 deaths between Dec. 7 and Jan. 8, the last date that the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported daily figures. As of Jan. 8, China’s CDC had reported a total of 5,272 deaths since the pandemic began.

China, engulfed in covid chaos, braces for Lunar New Year case spike

National Health Commission official Jiao Yahui said there has been a decline in patients visiting fever clinics in cities and rural areas, from a peak of 2.9 million on Dec. 23 to fewer than 500,000 on Jan. 12.

“The data show that the national emergency peak has passed,” Jiao said.

For most of the pandemic, China has pursued a strict zero-covid policy implemented through strict lockdowns, mandatory quarantines and mass testing as well as the tracking of citizens. After mass protests against those measures in late November and a surge in omicron cases, authorities suddenly dropped those restrictions on Dec. 7.

Since then, health officials have reported cases in all 31 provinces, municipalities and regions of the country but have not provided reliable figures on the true extent of the outbreak. Researchers at Peking University, using search results on online platforms, estimated a nationwide infection rate of 64 percent, with more than 900 million citizens catching the virus.

The lack of mandatory testing and the use of a narrow definition of covid deaths — positive patients who die of respiratory failure — has skewed China’s official death toll. Officials have said they will investigate fatalities and release the results in the future.

The World Health Organization has called on Beijing to share more information and said officials are underrepresenting the number of hospitalizations and deaths. Countries including the United States, South Korea and Japan have begun requiring coronavirus testing for arrivals from China. Beijing has pledged to take “counter measures” against such restrictions and last week suspended short-term visas to prospective visitors from South Korea and Japan.