China has angrily denied under-reporting deaths from Covid-19, as US President Joe Biden and the World Heath Organisation (WHO) both voiced concerns over its control of the virus.
Beijing furiously hit back at the criticism over its handling of the raging outbreak on Thursday, as the pandemic continues to rip through the country.
The WHO’s emergencies director, Mike Ryan – in some of the UN health agency’s most critical remarks to date – called out Chinese officials and said they were under-representing data on several fronts.
China reported just one new Covid death in the mainland for Wednesday, compared with five a day earlier, bringing its official death toll to 5,259.
But British-based health data firm Airfinity has estimated about 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from Covid.
China scrapped its stringent Covid controls last month after protests against the government restrictions, abandoning a policy that had shielded its 1.4 billion population from the virus for three years.
This followed nearly three years of lockdowns, travels bans and school closures that weighed heavily on the economy and prompted street protests not seen since the late 1980s.
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular press briefing in Beijing that China had transparently and quickly shared COVID data with the WHO.
Mao said that China’s ‘epidemic situation is controllable’ and that it hoped the WHO would ‘uphold a scientific, objective, and impartial position’.
‘Facts have proved that China has always, in accordance with the principles of legality, timeliness, openness and transparency, maintained close communication and shared relevant information and data with the WHO in a timely manner,’ Mao said.
The WHO’s Mike Ryan said on Wednesday the numbers China was publishing under-represented hospital admissions, intensive care unit patients and deaths.
This comes after it appeared families in China were burning the bodies of their loved ones in the streets amid an explosion of infections.
Hours after the WHO’s criticism, US President Joe Biden also raised concern about China’s handling of a Covid outbreak that is filling hospitals and overwhelming some funeral homes.
‘They’re very sensitive when we suggest they haven’t been that forthcoming,’ Biden told reporters while on a visit to Kentucky.
The French health minister voiced similar fears while German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach voiced concern about a new Covid subvariant linked to growing hospitalisations in the northeastern United States.
More than a dozen countries that have imposed restrictions on travellers from China, including the UK and US.
The European Union on Wednesday ‘strongly encouraged’ its member states to impose pre-departure Covid-19 testing of passengers from China.
China has criticised the border controls, calling them unreasonable and unscientific.
It has also warned of ‘countermeasures’ if such policies continued to be imposed.
The government said on Thursday that its border with its special administrative region of Hong Kong would also reopen on Sunday, for the first time in three years.
Millions of people will be travelling within China later this month for the Lunar New Year holiday.
China’s government has played down the severity of the situation in recent days and the state-run Global Times said in an article on Wednesday that COVID had peaked in several cities including the capital, Beijing, citing interviews with doctors.
But a Reuters report at a hospital in Shanghai’s suburban Qingpu district, detailed patients on beds lined the corridors of the emergency treatment area and main lobby on Thursday. Most of them elderly and several breathing with oxygen tanks.
A notice on a board advised that patients would have to wait an average of five hours to be seen.
Staff declared one elderly patient dead and pinned a note to the body on the floor stating the cause of death ‘respiratory failure’.
Police patrolled outside a nearby crematorium, where a stream of mourners carried wreathes and waited to collect the ashes of loved ones.
With one of the lowest official Covid death tolls in the world, China has been routinely accused of under-reporting for political reasons.
In December last year, the WHO said it had received no data from China on new Covid hospitalisations since Beijing lifted its zero-Covid policy.
In its latest weekly report, the WHO said China reported 218,019 new weekly Covid cases as of January 1, adding that gaps in data might be due to authorities simply struggling to tally cases.
The methods for counting Covid deaths have varied across countries since the pandemic first erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
Chinese health officials have said only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure in patients who had the virus are classified as COVID deaths.
But disease experts outside China have said its approach would miss several other widely recognised types of fatal COVID complications, from blood clots to heart attacks as well as sepsis and kidney failure.
International health experts predict at least 1 million COVID-related deaths in China this year without urgent action.