Celebrity deaths in China fuel concerns over country’s official Covid death tally

A string of celebrity deaths in China that mostly occurred last month have fuelled concerns about the government’s official Covid-19 toll.

The deaths have come after China scrapped its stringent “zero-Covid” policy and stopped giving daily briefings about the pandemic late in December last year.

While Chinese health authorities publish a daily count of new cases, severe cases and deaths, the figures include only officially confirmed cases and use a “very narrow” definition of Covid deaths, the latter of which was pointed out by the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently.

The national tally for Thursday included 9,548 new cases and five deaths, reported the Associated Press.

Some local governments, however, have released greater estimates just for their jurisdiction.

Zhejiang, a province on the east coast, said on Tuesday that about 1 million new cases a day were being reported.

The apparent contradictions between official government data and estimates by other organisations based out of China have further underscored speculation surrounding how a number of celebrity deaths from December last year have not been attributed to Covid.

Chu Lanlan, a 40-year-old opera singer, had died last month.

Her family said they were saddened by her “abrupt departure” but did not give details of the cause of her death, reported the BBC.

The singer was a soprano who specialised in Peking Opera and was also involved in charitable causes.

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Other notable public figures included Wang Jingguang, an award-winning film director best known for his 2013 movie Never Come Back, who also died last month.

Ni Zhen, an 84-year-old Chinese scriptwriter known for writing the 1991 classic film Raise the Red Lantern, died in December as well.

The death of senior 83-year-old actor Gong Jintang on New Year’s Day also led to speculation among Chinese social media users.

He was a household name for many and was known for his performance in a number of long-running television series, including In-Laws, Out-laws.

According to a report in The Guardian, a Weibo hashtag that read “the first Covid wave did not cause a massive amount of deaths”, social media users have questioned the official death toll.

The hashtag had more than 220 million views by Friday afternoon, the report added.

On Friday, China’s main health authority, the National Health Commission, said it will adjust criteria for discharging Covid patients from hospitals and add positive antigen tests as a diagnostic standard.

The move comes just two days after the WHO said it was “concerned about the risk to life in China” and said the full impact of the current outbreak in the country was “under-represented” by official figures.

“Data remains essential for WHO to carry out regular, rapid and robust risk assessments of the global situation,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference.

Earlier this week, China lashed out at Covid testing requirements put in place by various countries for travelers from the country.

“We believe that the entry restrictions adopted by some countries targeting China lack scientific basis, and some excessive practices are even more unacceptable,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a briefing on Tuesday.