Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 17 April 2022


The pandemic statistics from China are too good to be true

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A worker in a protective suit walks in Shanghai amid the lockdown on March 28. (Aly Song/Reuters, File)

Judging by the numbers, China appears to be experiencing a far different pandemic than the rest of the world. In the latest surge in Shanghai, its largest city with a population of 25 million, China has reported more than 300,000 cases since early March and no deaths. By contrast, the world as a whole has experienced about 195 deaths for every 100,000 population as of last November. Can China’s statistics be believed?

So why so few symptomatic infections? Chinese officials say they have caught infections early via massive surveillance and testing, and by a policy of forcing everyone who tests positive to enter quarantine and not self-isolate at home. However, in Shanghai, they may have been including in the asymptomatic tally those who are experiencing mild symptoms, thus purposely minimizing the count of those with serious illness.

China’s leader Xi Jinping boasts the pandemic response demonstrates the advantages of its zero-tolerance approach. “People first and life first,” he said, vowing no letup in the strategy, despite some angry protests in Shanghai.

But China’s leaders run a police state that pumps out propaganda while censoring independent information, and have a long-standing practice of lying or covering up bad news and disasters. In January 2020, they concealed the fact the virus was transmissible from human to human as the pandemic exploded. The death toll reported by China in the early part of the pandemic was most likely a very small fraction of those who actually perished.

In general, mortality from covid has been difficult to calculate around the world because it may be only a contributing factor to a death or may be omitted from a cause-of-death determination. To keep the death count low, China may be attributing covid deaths to other causes. The result is a striking disparity with other nations. A study just published by the Lancet, examining infections through last November, found that the United States had a cumulative death rate of 298 per 100,000 population; Russia had 376; Germany 188; Britain 168; Brazil 332; India 250 — and China, one per 100,000.

Biologically, the virus in China — the omicron BA.2 subvariant — isn’t that different from elsewhere. What does make China stand apart is a government that is intent on propagating a narrative that it is doing an exceptional job in managing the pandemic.

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