China’s National Health Commission on Saturday said the country had reported close to 60,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the ending of the stringent “zero-COVID” policy on December 7, 2022.
In a 36-day period from December 8, 2022 to January 12, 2023, there were a total of 59,938 deaths, Jiao Yahui, director of the National Health Commission’s medical affairs department, said on Saturday.
This included 5,503 deaths from respiratory failure directly caused by COVID-19, and 54,435 deaths of those who had underlying conditions and were then infected.
According to the NHC, the average age was 80 while 90% were aged 65 and above.
Numbers of those unvaccinated were not immediately available. As of end-November, shortly before China’s abrupt change in policy and almost overnight lifting of restrictions and ending of lockdowns, only 40% of the 30 million above-80 population had completed the full three doses of Chinese vaccines required, according to data from Hong Kong, to prevent hospitalisation and death.
Since early December, cases in Chinese cities have spread rapidly in what is essentially the country’s first major national wave since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, with zero-COVID insulating the country in 2020 and 2021 but unable to deal with more transmissable Omicron variants last year.
While the ending of zero-COVID quarantines and lockdowns has brought relief for many and sparked hopes of an economic revival, it has also hit the elderly population hard.
While most cases have been reported as mild, the unvaccinated elderly population has been vulnerable amid the rapid spread of cases, leading to huge pressure in recent weeks on the medical system. Crematoria in many Chinese cities have reported record waiting periods, and at the start of the new year, some families in Beijing were told of a 10-day wait for their loved ones to be transferred from morgues for cremation.
There is now concern of a spread of cases to rural areas as many return home ahead of the January 22 Chinese New Year holiday.