Why China’s COVID figures don’t add up

China is reporting fewer COVID cases despite easing restrictions across the country.

China's COVID statistics fly in the face of international experience [File: Hector Retamal/AFP]

As China loosens the world’s toughest COVID-19 restrictions, cases are declining – at least on paper.

Since Beijing began to unwind its tough “zero-COVID” strategy following rare mass protests last month, health authorities have been reporting fewer infections each day.

After hitting a record 39,791 cases nationwide on November 26, the daily caseload on Friday dropped to just 16,797.

By comparison, South Korea, with a population 26 times smaller than China, earlier this year reported more than 620,000 cases in a single day.

The paradoxical trend has raised doubts about the accuracy of China’s COVID figures, which have repeatedly defied patterns seen elsewhere.

Part of the reason is likely a major reduction in mass PCR testing.

Under a broad easing of curbs announced by China’s National Health Commission this week, testing will be sharply scaled back and mostly confined to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other “high-risk” areas.

“I think the drop of reported cases very likely reflects an undercount given the mass curtailing of mass PCR testing services,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera.

But political considerations could also be in play.

After spending three years warning of the dangers of COVID-19, Beijing has in recent days abruptly shifted its messaging to downplaying the dangers of newer coronavirus variants – even going as far as comparing them with the common cold.

In a social media post promoting an interview with a Chinese state official on Thursday, Liu Xin, a television anchor with the state-run China Global Television Network, said COVID-19 is “not something to fear”.

Getting that message through to China’s 1.4 billion people, who have lived with on-and-off lockdowns since early 2020, could be a challenge.

In a survey released this week, more than half of Chinese consumers said they would put off travel abroad even if the borders reopened tomorrow, with most of them citing fear of catching the virus.

China’s COVID statistics, which Beijing has trumpeted as proof of its superior handling of the pandemic compared with the West, have raised eyebrows before.

During the height of Shanghai’s worst outbreak in late April, authorities reported just 38 deaths out of more than 550,000 cases – a fatality rate with no international parallel.

South Korea, with a higher vaccination rate, reported a death rate nearly 20 times as high during its record wave at about the same time.

Among other explanations, medical experts said that Chinese hospitals tended not to record infected patients with comorbidities such as heart disease and cancer as COVID deaths.

Others suggested deliberate manipulation of the data for political ends.

Beijing’s opaque decision-making processes and preoccupation with controlling information have fuelled scepticism of its statistics in other areas, particularly the economy.

In a 2020 study, Yale School of Management professor Frank Zhang found that local government officials regularly inflate economic data to meet gross domestic product (GDP) targets.

William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University Department of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, said China’s COVID figures should be treated with scepticism.

“There have been instances in the past where data have been, to put it generously, difficult to understand,” Schaffner told Al Jazeera.

“There are longstanding cultural and administrative traditions in China such that local and regional medical and public health authorities have been punished for reporting information that has not pleased central authorities. It would be important to ask how cases are defined and how data are collected. This is standard operating procedure for all public health ministries around the world.”

Source: Al Jazeera