China faces deluge of deaths in first Chinese New Year without Covid-19 curbs

China will be celebrating its first Chinese New Year in January without the draconian curbs that went with zero-Covid. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING – China could see as many as 25,000 deaths a day from Covid-19 later in January, casting a shadow over the start of the first Chinese New Year festivities without pandemic restrictions.

Deaths from Covid-19 will probably peak on Jan 23, the second day of the annual holiday in the country of 1.4 billion, according to Airfinity, a London-based research firm that focuses on predictive health analytics. Daily infections will peak 10 days before at around 3.7 million.

China suddenly ended its zero-Covid policy in November, abandoning the strict testing and lockdown measures embraced by the world’s second-largest economy since the start of the pandemic almost three years ago.

“Using the trends in regional data, our team of epidemiologists has forecast the first peak to be in regions where cases are currently rising and a second peak driven by later surges in other Chinese provinces,” Airfinity said late on Thursday.

Daily infections are currently at around 1.8 million, with deaths at 9,000, it said. That was up from the 5,000-plus daily estimate by Airfinity earlier in December, and contrasts sharply with just around a dozen Covid-19 deaths the Chinese government has reported in total since early December.

By the end of April 2023, China may see 1.7 million deaths from this wave of infections, Airfinity said.

Airfinity’s estimates are based on data from China’s regional provinces, which have reported numbers far higher than official national figures, combined with trends seen in Hong Kong, Japan and other countries when they lifted strict restrictions.

Dr Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in a briefing on Thursday that Covid-19 outbreaks have peaked in Beijing, Tianjin and Chengdu. The situation in Shanghai, Chongqing, Anhui, Hubei and Hunan remains serious, he added.

The disease will probably spread during Chinese New Year, with many expected to travel around the holiday, he added.

With the lifting of travel and other restrictions for the first time since the start of the pandemic, a huge rebound in travel is anticipated during the holiday week in January.

The CDC plans to estimate how many additional deaths resulted from the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, Dr Wu said in the briefing.

“The deaths caused by Covid is a worldwide concern,” Dr Wu said. “By calculating excess mortality, we can figure out what could have potentially been underestimated.”

The CDC team has previously done a similar excess mortality analysis for the initial outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where Covid-19 first emerged. The National Health Commission added nearly 1,300 deaths from the city into its Covid-19 death count in April 2020. BLOOMBERG

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