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China records first Covid death in weeks as experts question official infection figures


hina has reported its first Covid-related death in weeks as experts question whether the official infection count is capturing the full extent of the spread of the disease.

On Monday two deaths were the first to be reported by the National Health Commission (NHC) since December 3, days before the government relaxed strict anti-virus controls.

Beijing lifted measures that had largely kept the virus in check for three years, but triggered widespread protests last month which stretched to London.

Protesters were calling for President Xi to resign as public outcry against the Chinese Communist Party‘s (CCP’s) strict zero Covid policy spread internationally.

Officially China has reported just 5,237 Covid-related deaths during the pandemic, including the latest two deaths – a fraction of its population of 1.4 billion.

“The (official) number is clearly an undercount of Covid deaths,” Yanzhong Huang, a global health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Reuters.

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.

Less PCR testing is taking place following the restrictions lifting, and the NHC stopped reporting asymptomatic cases last week.

China’s stocks fell and the yuan eased against the dollar on Monday, as investors grew concerned that surging Covid-19 cases would further weigh on the world’s second-largest economy despite pledges of government support.

The virus is spreading throughout the financial hub of Shanghai, with illness and absence thinning already light trade and forcing regulators to cancel a weekly meeting vetting public share sales.

China’s chief epidemiologist Wu Zunyou on Saturday said the country was in the throes of the first of three Covid waves expected this winter.

Beijing city official Xu Hejian told reporters on Monday that the virus was spreading fast in the capital, putting pressure on medical resources.

But more restrictions will be lifted, with previously-closed venues located underground, from bars to internet cafes, allowed to re-open, Xu said. He made no comment on any fatalities.

Beijing will speed up imports of Covid medicines amid shortages in the city’s pharmacies, another official said.

While top officials have been downplaying the threat posed by the Omicron strain of the virus in recent weeks, authorities remain concerned about the elderly, who have been reluctant to get vaccinated.

China’s vaccination rate is above 90 per cent, but the rate for adults who have received booster shots drops to 57.9 per cent, and to 42.3 per cent for people aged 80 and above, government data shows.

In the Shijingshan district of Beijing, medical workers have been going door-to-door offering to vaccinate elderly residents in their homes, state news agency Xinhua reported.

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