China will no longer publish daily figures on COVID-19 cases and deaths, the National Health Commission (NHC) announced on Sunday, ending a practice that began in early 2020.
Cities across China are struggling with an increase in virus cases, resulting in pharmacy shelves empty and hospitals and crematoria overflowing after Beijing suddenly abolished its zero-COVID regime earlier this month.
The decision to abolish the daily virus count is due to concerns that the country’s flourishing wave of infections is not accurately reflected in official statistics.
Beijing admitted last week that following the end of mandatory mass testing, it has become “impossible” to track the extent of the outbreak.
Last week, China also narrowed the criteria for counting COVID-19 deaths — a move that experts say would reduce the number of deaths attributable to the virus.
The NHC gave no explanation for its decision to stop publishing daily COVID data.
“As of today, we will no longer publish daily information about the epidemic,” the NHC said.
“The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] will publish information about the outbreak for reference and research purposes,” the NHC said, without specifying the type or frequency of information to be released.
On Chinese social media, some users reacted cynically to the NHC’s decision, pointing to the growing discrepancy between official statistics and infections in their families and social circles.
“They finally wake up and realize they can’t fool people anymore,” wrote one user on the Weibo social network.
Another user said, “This was the best and largest office in the country for compiling fake statistics.”
According to China’s new definition of COVID deaths, only those who die from respiratory failure are counted — and not from pre-existing conditions made worse by the virus.
Since Beijing lifted most of its restrictions, only six COVID deaths have been reported.
But crematory staff interviewed by AFP news agency have reported an unusually high influx of bodies, while hospitals say they record several deaths a day as wards are full of elderly patients and forced to fill atria with beds.
“Are there crematory workers here? Are you overworked? Can you talk about that? ” wrote another Weibo user.
China’s censors and mouthpieces have worked overtime to see the decision to abolish strict travel restrictions, quarantines and shutdowns as a victory, even as the number of cases rises.
While state media have largely refrained from reporting on the darker sides of the exit plan, they have stated to some extent that hospitals are under stress due to the influx of patients and the lack of medicines for fever.
In a rare confirmation this week, a senior health official in the eastern city of Qingdao was quoted by the media as saying that half a million people are infected every day.
Health authorities in Zhejiang, a coastal province with around 65 million inhabitants south of Shanghai, said that the number of daily infections has now exceeded one million.
And “a large number of infected people” were reported in Beijing on Saturday.
Some health experts estimate that 60 percent of the 1.4 billion people could become infected in the coming months and that more than two million could die. The virus is also weighing on China’s economy, which is expected to grow by less than 3 percent this year, the worst performance in almost half a century.