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China downplays the severity of its COVID-19 surge

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

According to China's government, 80% of the country's population has now been infected with COVID. The announcement comes amid an ongoing outbreak following the dismantling of its zero-COVID policy last month. And with hundreds of millions of people expected to travel over the Lunar New Year holiday, there's concern that infections could spike in many areas, leading to possibly tens of thousands of deaths a day. Lily Kuo is The Washington Post's China bureau chief and has been covering the outbreak. She's with us now from Taipei, which is the capital of Taiwan. Lily Kuo, thanks so much for joining us.

LILY KUO: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So you've been reporting on this devastating outbreak since China reversed its zero-COVID policy. Could you just give us some sense of how bad it's been? Is there any way you can sort of describe the dimensions of it?

KUO: So the outbreak actually had started in November, and when the restrictions were lifted, it was kind of like they were dropped all at once across the country. And what we saw right after that is hospitals being completely overwhelmed. We also found, through satellite imagery interviews, funeral homes also overwhelmed, crematoriums overwhelmed and a lot of concerns about how this would affect people in rural areas.

MARTIN: You and your team used satellite imagery to show the dimensions of it. Can you just describe a little bit about what those images revealed?

KUO: So we used satellite imagery to look at funeral homes in six cities, and we could track increased cars and people outside these funeral homes in December and January, an increase compared to the same time last year. And that's important because there is always an uptick in the winter. But what we saw was an increase that was out of the ordinary.

MARTIN: Was the government misleading the public about the scope of the problem, or was the government just not accurately reporting the scope of the problem?

KUO: We don't know what the government's intention was, but we do know that the numbers that they were reporting, based on what we could see and what we were told, couldn't possibly be true. So these numbers that there were less than 40 deaths since December when, you know, between the people that we had interviewed and contacts and relatives and friends, I mean, you know, we could easily count more than 40 people that had died of COVID. When they dropped the restrictions, they dropped mandatory testing. So there was a lot less data.

Another issue was the way that COVID deaths were classified. So a positive patient had to die of respiratory failure in order for that death to be counted as a COVID death. At the time that we did that reporting, the government had said that officially, there had only been 37 deaths from when restrictions were lifted up into early January. And for the whole pandemic, they said that there were only 5,200 deaths. And more recently, the government has revised that estimate of the deaths and said that it's almost 60,000.

MARTIN: So has the government responded directly to your reporting? I mean, I do note that the numbers have been revised. What they're saying now comports more to the reality, as you've been reporting. But did they respond directly to your reporting in any way?

KUO: They didn't respond directly to our reporting. Of course, we did send them requests for comment. And I do think it's interesting that they revised their death count after our reporting and other media reporting, which was casting more scrutiny and a lot more doubt on these numbers. But there are still people that say that the numbers that they have released are just the tip of the iceberg.

MARTIN: What stands out to you most about the way the government reversed itself on that?

KUO: It's interesting because, you know, for so long, China has had this huge zero-COVID infrastructure, and they've been able to enforce these very detailed rules on the entire population. And they've used, you know, millions of volunteers to do it, and they do mass contact tracing and mass testing, an app called the Health Code, which tracks every citizen. And so for a country that had been doing this for almost three years, to not be able to manage a more orderly reopening was really kind of baffling. And I think that people - a lot of people had questions over why did they not proceed in a more orderly way, sort of like Singapore.

But when the central government released these restrictions, what actually happened is that local governments kind of interpreted that as, OK, that's the end of zero-COVID, when in actuality, if you read the instructions that the central government released, they wanted it to be a gradual process. But the way that you exit out of these kind of big campaigns, these big mobilizations, is very messy. And so all the local governments just kind of dropped the restrictions all at once. And that's why it was so chaotic.

MARTIN: So Lunar New Year gets underway today. In China, that means hundreds of millions of people traveling to visit family, much more than in the previous two years because the restrictions kept people at home. I know this just - the holiday just began, but do you have any sense of the impact that that's having?

KUO: I don't know if we have a sense of the impact just yet. We do know that in rural areas, the hospitals and the health care system is weaker than in cities and that there also are a lot of elderly people in the rural areas, and they are the most vulnerable. So there is a lot of concern of what the infection and the death rates will be. Or this holiday.

MARTIN: That is Lily Kuo. She's The Washington Post's China bureau chief. She joins us from Taipei. Lily, thanks so much for joining us.

KUO: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.