Covid cases and deaths in China: 5 charts showing what we know about coronavirus in China amid latest wave

Covid cases have reportedly exploded across China following easing of Zero-Covid restrictions (Image: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)Covid cases have reportedly exploded across China following easing of Zero-Covid restrictions (Image: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)
Covid cases have reportedly exploded across China following easing of Zero-Covid restrictions (Image: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg) | Image: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg
Countries are rushing to impose travel restrictions on China amid reports its hospitals and morgues are being overwhelmed by Covid - but what does the data say, and can we trust it?

Countries around the world are scrambling to introduce Covid restrictions on travellers from China, following reports the country is being overwhelmed by a new wave of infections after relaxing its tough zero-Covid policy.

On Wednesday (28 December) the US announced it would require all travellers aged two and older from China to provide a negative Covid test to enter the country from 5 January. Japan, Italy, India, South Korea and Taiwan will also require negative tests, while Malaysia is introducing new tracking and surveillance measures. The UK has not currently imposed any restrictions on Chinese visitors, but Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said on Thursday (29 December) that the position was “under review”.

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China rolled back its severe anti-coronavirus restrictions in November, scrapping the use of quarantine camps and neighbourhood-wide lockdowns, after protests against the measures broke out across the country. It will also resume issuing visas and passports to its citizens in early January, easing strict travel restrictions.

But alarm is mounting around the world about reports of an explosion in Covid cases, with doctors telling news outlets hospitals are being overwhelmed. China’s Zero-Covid approach combined with a weak vaccination programme has left the population with relatively low levels of immunity, and there are fears about the potential for new variants to emerge if the virus runs rampant through the country.

Data on cases, hospitalisations and deaths is also unreliable in China and the figures can vary depending on the source, making it difficult to know what the true scale of the outbreak is. NationalWorld has looked at the latest available data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has been tracking infections around the world since the onset of the pandemic. Here’s what you need to know.

How many Covid cases have there been in China?

Official WHO figures covering to 23 December put the cumulative number of Covid cases in China at 10.2 million. That would equate to fewer than 1% of its 1.4 billion-strong population having been infected.

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In the week to 23 December, China was reporting an average of 22,747 new cases per day. While an increase of 9% in a week, that was lower than during mid-October, when it was reporting almost 50,000 cases per day on average. But the reliability of the data from China is in doubt, especially given a major reduction in PCR testing.

For context, England – a far smaller country – reported 36,963 cases in the seven days to 17 December, according to the latest UK government Covid dashboard update, even with the limited availability of testing across the country.

The chart below shows the distribution of Covid cases in China since the start of the pandemic. Can’t see the chart? Click here to open it in a new window.

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In recent days China has said it will no longer publish daily Covid cases and deaths data. WHO had warned earlier in the month that China may have been struggling to keep track of its infections.

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Dr Mike Ryan, WHO director of emergencies, said he believed China was “behind the curve” after being overwhelmed by the spread of the virus following the dismantling of its zZero-Covid policy.

He said: "In China, what’s been reported is relatively low numbers of cases in ICUs [intensive care units], but anecdotally ICUs are filling up. We’ve been saying this for weeks that this highly infectious virus was always going to be very hard to stop completely, with just public health and social measures."

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The chart above shows the number of Covid cases in China over the last six months (can’t see the chart? Click here to open it in a new window). It suggests that contrary to reports of hospitals and morgues filling up, there has not been an increase in Covid cases following the relaxation of restrictions – although as already stated, mass testing has been rolled back, so fewer cases will have been caught.

China also changed its reporting methods on 14 December to exclude “asymptomatic” cases, according to John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

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The National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China stated in an online daily briefing that “it’s impossible to get accurate statistics for asymptomatic cases given the fact that many asymptomatic cases choose not to take nucleic acid tests,” which are voluntary.

“Therefore, starting from Dec 14, 2022, statistics for asymptomatic cases will no longer be released,” the Chinese government announced.

China defines asymptomatic cases as those that register positive results but that are not accompanied by Covid-19’s most common symptoms. Since the start of the pandemic, health officials around the world have warned that around one in three people with Covid show no symptoms at all.

How many Covid deaths has China had?

According to data provided to WHO, China has only recorded 31,585 Covid deaths as of 23 December. This would give it a rate of just 2.2 deaths per 100,000 people (based on UN population estimates for 2021) compared to a global average of 84.2 per 100,000 (although WHO estimates the total death toll is far higher than its official count of 6.7 million).

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The chart below shows China’s death rate compared to developed countries. Can’t see the chart? Click here to open it in a new window.

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The vast majority of the 31,585 deaths reported by China have occurred during 2022 – 25,886, or 72% of them. Since November alone, there have been 3,125 deaths, or 10% of the total to date.

However, China has been routinely accused of downplaying its death toll, with a study published in the Lancet medical journal in March 2022 estimating there were 17,900 excess deaths in China in 2020-21, which was almost four times the official death toll of 4,820.

The chart below shows the distribution of deaths since the start of the pandemic. Can’t see the chart? Click here to open it in a new window.

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Last week China confirmed it has narrowed its definition of a Covid death to count only deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure. Deaths of patients with pre-existing conditions are not counted, said Wang Guigiang, the head of infectious diseases at Peking University’s No. 1 Hospital.

Most other countries count all deaths where Covid is a contributing factor. In the UK, the main measure of coronavirus deaths is those where the virus was mentioned anywhere on the death certificate. The UK has also been counting deaths that had occurred within 28 days of a positive test, which was a more timely way of keeping track of deaths at the height of the pandemic, but would have been less accurate.

Experts at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle and Hong Kong University have forecast between one and two million deaths in China next year, according to the PA news agency.

The chart below shows what this would do to China’s death rate – even not accounting for the number of extra people above its official toll that have died from Covid to date. Can’t see the chart? Click here to open it in a new window.

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