One of China’s most populous provinces has deleted mortality data that offered an indication of the heavy death toll from Beijing’s relaxation of Covid-19 controls at the end of last year.
The statistics reported by Zhejiang province last week showed that the number of cremations in the wealthy coastal region during the first quarter of the year jumped 73 per cent from a year earlier, to 171,000.
The figure was well above the 99,000 and 91,000 deaths reported in the same period in 2022 and 2021 respectively. By Monday, with the statistics attracting attention on Chinese social media, Zhejiang had pulled the information offline.
Hospitals and crematoriums were inundated with Covid patients after Beijing reversed its pandemic policy in December, but Chinese officials have not published detailed and accurate statistics that would allow researchers to better assess the deadly spread of the virus through the population.
For nearly two weeks in December the country reported no Covid deaths in daily updates, even though bodies were piled up in hospitals and crematoriums.
In early January the World Health Organization accused China of underrepresenting the severity of its coronavirus outbreak and the real number of deaths. At the time, Chinese health officials dismissed concerns of underreporting, promising to make public excess death data to “assess any possible underestimation”.
“For this Covid-19 wave, we have a team studying excess deaths, and we will provide this information to the public,” Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in late December.
But seven months later China has not released any excess death data. Aside from rough estimates of annual deaths by the state planning agency, the locallevel cremation data is China’s only publicly available statistic for tracking the number of deaths in the country. Nearly everyone who dies in urban areas is cremated because burials are banned.
But the number of cremations has been systematically left off dozens of quarterly reports published by local and national civil affairs bureaus.
Willy Lam, senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank, said: “On December 8, Xi decided to lift all Covid controls with no preparation, one of the main reasons so many people died.”