Official data from China offered a rare, but brief, glimpse of the true Covid toll, indicating that nearly as many people may have died from the virus in a single province earlier this year as Beijing said died on the mainland during the entire pandemic. . .
The data was removed from a provincial government website just days after it was published on Thursday. But epidemiologists who reviewed a cached version of the information said it was the latest indication that the country’s official count was a vast undercount.
The number of cremations in the eastern province of Zhejiang rose to 171,000 in the first quarter of this year, the website said. That was 72,000 more cremations, about a 70 percent increase, than was reported in the same period last year.
In February, China said the official death toll on the mainland since the start of the pandemic was 83,150 – a remarkably low number that independent researchers said was not credible. Since then, the government has only released weekly or monthly death tolls, which, when added up, bring the grand total to about 83,700.
Covid surged across China late last year, forcing the government to abandon its strict pandemic restrictions in December. The government’s sudden political reversal, however, left hospitals and pharmacies unprepared for the onslaught and likely accelerated the spread of infections and a wave of deaths across the country.
That increase in Covid infections across China lasted about two months. Most of the deaths occurred in January, but many people also died in December. Epidemiologists estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the population has been infected.
The Zhejiang data offered a window into cremation figures that have been closely guarded by the Chinese government. While the data does not include the cause of death, researchers regularly use excess mortality statistics to estimate the impact of major fatal events such as disasters and pandemics. Everyone who dies in Zhejiang is cremated, officials say.
Many local and national authorities have retained regularly issued cremation data since that first major Covid wave began late last year. It is unclear why Zhejiang province released data for the first quarter of this year, but three days after it appeared, the report was removed.
Calls on Tuesday to several numbers at Zhejiang’s civil affairs bureau went unanswered. Beijing-based media outlet Caixin reported on the figures on Monday, but its article was also quickly removed.
An analysis by The New York Times published in February estimated that China’s recent Covid wave may have killed between one million and 1.5 million people, based on research by four teams of epidemiologists.
The new data from Zhejiang — which is confined to a province of 65.8 million people — when extrapolated to the country’s population of 1.4 billion people, is roughly consistent with that range, experts from two of those teams said.
Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said the data can be used for a rough estimate of China’s nationwide death toll. “I’m not sure the effect would be exactly the same in every province, but I think it would be useful for a rough extrapolation,” he said. “It’s consistent with the estimates of about 1.5 million.”
Another team of researchers – Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of biology and statistics at the University of Texas at Austin and Zhanwei Du, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong – reached a rough estimate of 1.54 million deaths from December to March in mainland China. , based on the cremation count.
Last year, using a completely different method based on tests of infections, vaccine effectiveness and other factors in China, the same research team estimated a most likely value of 1.55 million deaths for a slightly shorter period within a plausible range of 1.2 million to 1 ,7 million. . The similarity of those figures to the current estimate probably indicates that Covid spread across all provinces in China similarly after the zero Covid policy ended, Ms Meyers said.
“The fact that you end up with these very similar numbers suggests that things have been equally devastating around the country,” Ms Meyers said.
Yong Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies mortality in China, arrived at an estimate of 1.5 million deaths for the first quarter of the year, based on the cremation data, and said that to estimate total mortality during the increase, deaths in December of last year, when cases began to increase, had to be taken into account.
He said he was surprised by Zhejiang’s cremation number. “It’s higher than I expected.”
Zhejiang is one of China’s richest provinces, with good health care and elderly vaccination above the national average. Its age distribution population is roughly representative of China as a whole, with 19 percent of the population over 60. In December, when Covid was spreading widely, Zhejiang health authorities announced that the province was recording one million infections a day.
All four epidemiologists and demographers cautioned that there are caveats and uncertainties in extrapolating the cremation data. But without more reliable data from China, academics say they must rely on imperfect information to assess the virus’ impact.
“We have nothing better,” said Mr. Cai.
Other recent evidence suggests the impact elsewhere in the country. Data released earlier this year showed a large decline in Shanghai’s life expectancy, from 84.1 in 2021 to 83.2 in 2022, for the first time on this scale since 1983. The drop is likely attributable to December’s increase in Covid combined with a severe lockdown in the spring of that year prevented some residents from accessing medical care, Mr Cai said.
“I sincerely hope that the Chinese government can release all available data, make it transparent so that people understand what is going on,” he said. “They have the data. It’s sitting somewhere.”
Joy Dong contributed reporting.