Accidentally Published Chinese Data Indicates Higher COVID Death Toll than Official Count
A Chinese provincial government published and then deleted public health information suggesting the nation’s actual death toll from COVID is far higher than the country’s official statistics. The Chinese Communist Party officially claims that only 83,700 inhabitants have died from COVID during the entire course of the pandemic, now approaching four years. But, according to epidemiologists interviewed by The New York Times (NYT), the accidentally published data was more consistent with an estimated 1.5 million COVID deaths in China over the first quarter of this year.
The data come from the Zhejiang Civil Affairs Bureau, which released provincial data on July 13 indicating the province had 171,000 cremations during the first quarter of 2023. (In Zhejiang, everyone who dies is cremated.) This was 72,000 cremations more (roughly 70%) than Zhejiang reported in the first quarter of 2022. “While the data does not include the cause of death, researchers regularly use excess death statistics to estimate the impact of major deadly events like disasters and pandemics,” NYT noted.
Zhejiang is a coastal province bordering Shanghai, ranking sixth in GDP per capita and eighth in population among China’s 31 province-level divisions. For a comparison closer to home, it holds a population nearly equal to California and Texas combined in an area the size of Kentucky. It has GDP nearly equal to Florida’s, although its GDP per capita is barely a third of the last-ranked U.S. state. It has 12 cities with one million or more inhabitants; its largest cities, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Wenzhou, and Shaoxing, are roughly the size of Los Angeles, Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Las Vegas, respectively.
Due to a scarcity of reliable data coming from China, epidemiologists often have to extrapolate an estimate from the data they do have. “We don’t have anything better,” said Yong Cai, a demographer at UNC-Chapel Hill. The Zhejiang data shows 72,000 excess deaths among 65.8 million people, or 4.7% of China’s 1.4 billion in total population. Extrapolating the same excess death rate across the entire country yields a result of 1.53 million deaths. “I’m not sure the impact would have been exactly the same in every province, but I think it would be useful for a rough extrapolation,” said University of Hong Kong epidemiologist Ben Cowling. “It’s consistent with the estimates of around 1.5 million.”
Based on reports of infection rates, China experienced a tsunami of COVID cases between December 2022 and February 2023, although the official death toll was unreliable. “Hospitals turned away patients. Crematories were overwhelmed with bodies. A wave of top scholars died,” summarized NYT. A February compilation of four different academic models estimated that China likely suffered between 1 million and 1.5 million deaths from December 2022 to February 2023.
While China’s massive COVID wave occurred after they relaxed their draconian lockdown measures to ease rising domestic tensions — too much even for China! — it isn’t China’s first experience with COVID. The disease first spread there in late 2019, sickening at least hundreds of thousands and overwhelming hospitals. China adopted a “Zero COVID” policy to eradicate the disease by implementing strict lockdowns wherever it began to spread. But the frequency of the lockdowns alone — hence the domestic tension — suggests that the disease continued to spread, even if the Chinese government didn’t record the cases and deaths (at least not officially).
Thus, while China suffered as many as 1.5 million deaths from January to March of this year, its total death toll over the nearly four-years-long history of COVID would likely be significantly higher.
By contrast, the U.S. death toll (aggregated from state data) stood at 1.1 million total COVID deaths when the pandemic emergency ended in early May.
Western researchers have long suspected the reliability of China’s COVID statistics. “China’s COVID-19 figures are not arithmetically sensible,” wrote American Enterprise Scholar Derek Scissors in April 2020. “The Communist Party has deliberately made estimation difficult, but, outside of Wuhan city and Hubei province, cases are low by a factor of 100 or more.” Using a “conservative” model with the lowest possible numbers, Scissors estimated China already had 2.9 million COVID cases.
At the time, China officially reported nearly 82,747 COVID cases and 4,632 COVID deaths (5.6% death rate), while worldwide totals stood at 2.4 million COVID cases and nearly 170,000 COVID deaths (7.1% death rate). Extrapolating China’s death rate over 2.9 million cases would indicate 162,336 deaths.
Even The Washington Post reported in April 2020 that, based on calculations from Wuhan funeral homes and cremation furnaces, the death toll in Wuhan was 16 to 18 times the official death toll.
The Chinese Communist Party has tied up its prestige with its “Zero COVID” policy and homegrown vaccines to the point that it refuses to admit either was a failure. So, as with COVID origins, China continues to censor the data on COVID deaths. Although it was standard practice to report such data before the pandemic, dozens of Chinese provinces have withheld or erased quarterly cremation statistics (which can be used to track excess deaths) going back to the beginning of 2020, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation.
In contrast to the growing evidence of China’s undercount of COVID deaths, more voices are recognizing that the U.S. tally of COVID deaths is inflated. “The official number is probably an exaggeration, a NYT piece admitted last week, “because it includes some people who had [the] virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death.” Based on CDC data and a study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, the NYT concludes that the U.S. over-counted COVID deaths by “almost one-third,” which would put the true U.S. death total closer to 800,000.
Over the past two years, a chorus of medical experts, think tanks, and left-wing news organizations have suggested that the world, and particularly the U.S., can “learn from” China’s COVID-19 response, based on the notion that China’s “Zero COVID” policy was more successful than Western strategies — a position growing less plausible with time. Such articles can be found in scientific journals such as The Lancet and The British Medical Journal, left-wing think tanks such as the World Economic Forum and The Wilson Center, and a number of U.S. media organizations, including Barron’s, Nature Magazine, The Hill, NPR, Vox, and even the not-so-lefty Wall Street Journal.
But increasing evidence suggests that China’s response was not as successful as their official statistics lead the credulous observer to believe, while the U.S.’s comparative — and only comparative — respect for individual freedoms did not cost as many lives as official statistics indicated at first. Even setting aside acute pandemic-related problems such as mental health crises, learning loss, and economic suppression, the reorientation of evidence surrounding COVID death tolls undermines the proposition that America’s next pandemic response should look more like China’s.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.