China has reported its first Covid deaths in weeks amid rising doubt that the country is revealing the true extent of fatalities as the disease runs rampant among its population.
Streets in major Chinese cities have been eerily quiet as people stay home to protect themselves from a surge in cases that has washed over urban centres from north to south.
The country's National Health Commission reported just two deaths on Monday (local time) amid stories of hospitals and crematoriums becoming overwhelmed by the demand.
On Saturday, Reuters journalists witnessed hearses lined up outside a designated Covid-19 crematorium in Beijing and workers in hazmat suits carrying the dead inside the facility.
Videos circulating on social media also purport to show funeral homes and crematoriums filling with body bags. One video shows hundreds of people lining up to purchase urns. However in most cases it is unclear as to what role Covid may have played in the deaths.
Smoke has been seen billowing out of crematoriums across China while vehicles to transport bodies are reportedly hard to find. "Right now it is difficult to book a hearse so many relatives transport the body with their own vehicles," one crematorium employee told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.
Sharing images of cars stretched down the road outside a crematorium in Beijing on Monday, Sky News journalist Leo Lord-Jones said he spoke with one man who said his friend's mother had died after having no underlying conditions.
China today reported just two new Covid deaths, but this was the queue of hearses at Beijing’s Dongjiao crematorium this morning. It’s designated to handle Covid deaths.
A man told us his friend’s 73yo mother died from Covid despite having no underlying conditions. pic.twitter.com/ezKh2rap6N
— Leo Lord-Jones (@leolordjones) December 19, 2022
Chinese cities are 'ghost towns'
Streets and shopping centres in Beijing were all but deserted to start the week. "Beijing feels like a ghost town," the BBC's China correspondent Stephen McDonell reported for the network. "Most people are either recovering at home, or afraid to go out, lest they too become infected."
He said employers were having a difficult time trying to get workers back into the office, stating "it looks like China is in for a tough few months".
Meanwhile social media posts also showed empty subways in the city of Xian in China's northwest, while in Shanghai, the country's commercial hub, there was none of the usual bustle in the run up to the New Year, Reuters reported.
China accused of 'cheating the public'
A hashtag on the two reported Covid deaths quickly became the top trending topic on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform on Monday.
"What is the point of incomplete statistics?" asked one user. "Isn't this cheating the public?," wrote another.
The low number of deaths since curbs were lifted on December 7 is inconsistent with the experience of other countries after similar moves. Officially China has suffered just 5,237 Covid-related deaths during the pandemic, including the latest two fatalities, a tiny fraction of its 1.4 billion population.
But health experts have said China may pay a price for taking such stringent measures to shield a population that now lacks natural immunity to Covid-19 and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.
Respected Chinese news outlet Caixin on Friday reported that two state media journalists had died after contracting COVID, and then on Saturday that a 23-year-old medical student had also died. It was not immediately clear which, if any, of these deaths were included in official death tolls.
⚠️THERMONUCLEAR BAD—Hospitals completely overwhelmed in China ever since restrictions dropped. Epidemiologist estimate >60% of 🇨🇳 & 10% of Earth’s population likely infected over next 90 days. Deaths likely in the millions—plural. This is just the start—🧵pic.twitter.com/VAEvF0ALg9
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) December 19, 2022
"The (official) number is clearly an undercount of Covid deaths," said Yanzhong Huang, a global health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank.
That "may reflect the lack of state ability to effectively track and monitor the disease situation on the ground after the collapse of the mass PCR testing regime, but it may also be driven by efforts to avoid mass panic over the surge of Covid deaths," he said.
The NHC reported 1,995 symptomatic infections for December 18, compared with 2,097 a day earlier.
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.