China confirms first COVID-19 death since May as authorities try to stem rising cases

China has confirmed its first COVID-19 death in nearly six months as the country grapples with another recent outbreak of infections.

On Sunday, China’s National Health Commission reported the COVID-19 death of an 87-year-old man in Beijing. The last reported death was in Shanghai on May 26.

People wearing face masks walk down a pedestrian street in Beijing's Wangfujing shopping district on Saturday, November 11.  19th, 2022.

People wearing face masks walk down a pedestrian street in Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping district on Saturday, November 11. 19th, 2022.
(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Sunday’s announcement brings the total number of COVID-19 deaths in China to 5,227. This is according to official figures released by the ruling Communist Party. The actual number is likely much higher, given the party’s ingrained reputation for manipulating statistics, the lack of external scrutiny, and a subjective criterion for determining causes of death.

With a population of 1.4 billion, China has officially reported just 286,197 cases since the virus was first detected in Wuhan in late 2019. Unlike other countries, the deaths of patients with COVID-19 symptoms have often been attributed to underlying conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, which obscures the true number of deaths from the virus and almost certainly undercounts.

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China on Sunday announced 24,215 new cases detected in the past 24 hours, the vast majority of them asymptomatic.

While China has an overall vaccination rate of more than 92% after receiving at least one dose, that figure is significantly lower among the elderly — particularly those over 80 — where it drops to just 65%. The commission did not provide information on the vaccination status of the youngest deceased.

A man has his swab sample taken for a nucleic acid test for coronavirus disease at a testing booth in Beijing, China November 27.  12/11/2022.

A man has his swab sample taken for a nucleic acid test for coronavirus disease at a testing booth in Beijing, China November 27. 12/11/2022.
(Reuters/Tingshu-Wang)

This vulnerability is believed to be one of the reasons why China has kept its borders mostly closed and sticks to its rigid “zero-COVID” policy, which aims to wipe out infections through lockdowns, quarantines, case tracking and mass testing, despite the impact on the normal life and economy and the growing public anger towards the authorities.

Nearly three years into the pandemic, while the rest of the world has largely opened up and the impact on the Chinese economy is mounting, Beijing has mostly kept its borders closed and even discouraged travel within the country.

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In the capital, Beijing, residents have been told not to travel between neighborhoods, and a large number of restaurants, shops, malls, office buildings and apartment blocks have been closed or isolated. Local and international schools in districts of the city of 21 million have gone online.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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