Manipulation of Covid data by China: the two “smoking guns”
Is China’s “Zero-Covid” policy working?
The question is back on the table. The Omicron variant is now spreading worldwide and has penetrated the Chinese firewall. Beijing has reimposed its toughest countermeasures, including locking down entire cities. Economic activity is impacted and evidence of a slowdown is mounting.
- “More than 20 million people are on lockdown, confined to their homes due to concerns about the supply of food and other daily necessities. Factories have been closed, affecting the supply of computer chips and other products. Volkswagen has closed two factories in Tianjin.In the city of Xi’an, in the north of the country, a confinement has been imposed on its 14 million inhabitants since December 23. The city of Zhuhai, in the far south, has suspended flights to Beijing and bus service with Guangzhou and banned locals from leaving…China banned dozens of overseas flights from Europe, Canada, US…Shanghai suspended travel links.
The first case of Omicron has just been reported in Beijing itself.
Can China contain this? At what price?
China’s Covid data is plagued with puzzling gaps and anomalies. Some researchers have tried to interpolate the missing information using various “advanced” statistical techniques (the fancy label is “machine learning”). Especially, The Economist developed and published an ML model based on “121 different indicators for over 200 distinct countries and territories”. (I cited some of their findings in a previous column.)
ML techniques can be very useful in detecting hidden patterns. They can also produce results that may be difficult to interpret or explain. Critics (especially in China) have seized on this point to dismiss all “interpolated” data, and any assumptions or conclusions based on it.
At my university, we have experience with ML and related techniques. I believe The Economist model is sound, as far as it goes, and if authorities in Beijing made data available from China, the results could be improved. Nevertheless, to avoid these concerns about the interpretability of ML, in this column I will focus on conclusions that can be based strictly on the data officially reported by the Chinese government.
Even sticking to this undisputed source, however, obvious problems emerge. In some cases, the data is incomplete. In others, it is highly implausible. And some of what is reported may not be true.
Chinese reports on Covid-related issues are often simply unavailable. For example, China does not report any figures on excess mortality, which is a standard measure that the United Nations calls the “preferred measure” for assessing the impact of the disease on a given population. Scientific studies of Covid mortality are forced to leave China out of consideration.
China indeed systematically refuses to cooperate with almost all requests for Covid-related data from international organizations and scientific researchers (many examples noted in my previous column). The Economist The study comes with a caveat: “The Chinese Centers for Disease Control did not respond to our requests.”
Lack of cooperation is not necessarily incriminating, but it is very problematic. The Chinese data embargo has compromised the investigation of the origins and evolution of the pandemic, and it now hampers our understanding of the effectiveness of alternative countermeasures.
Some of the official data that the Chinese authorities choose to make available is very strange. One wonders how China can claim a Covid death rate 30 times lower than Korea, 50 times lower than Singapore? That is 73 times less than in New Zealand (since April 2020)? These are countries with strict containment policies, highly secure borders, strong public health infrastructure and high vaccination rates.
Yet it’s true (as some readers responding to previous columns have argued) that no country has gone as far as China, shutting down cities, banning all travel, welding people together in their homes, by setting up mass quarantine camps, imprison the workers for not wearing masks (ex.), etc…
Perhaps, say China’s advocates, this shows that Beijing’s extreme policies work better than simply very strict policies. May be. But is this the most likely explanation?
This brings us to a bigger problem with data.
There are at least two ‘smoking guns’ in plain sight, based on official figures released by Beijing – unexplained discrepancies that point directly to the apparent manipulation, suppression and even falsification of Covid mortality data in China.
Smoking Gun #1: The Missing Dead
Of all the “gaps” in official data from China, the most damning is the complete halt in all reported Covid fatalities in mainland China after April 2020 – despite the continued spread of infection, despite tens of thousands of reported cases of Covid infection.
Before April 2020, Covid was raging in Wuhan/Hubei (according to official statistics) – with an unusually high case fatality rate (CFR) of 5.7% – 3 times higher than the CFR for the rest of the world. Note that Hong Kong, which also follows very strict containment protocols, has a CFR of 1.6% – very close to the world average of 1.8%. (The US rate is 1.3%).
After April 2020, official Covid mortality figures in mainland China fell to zero.
It is beyond “unbelievable”. Most of the more than 22,000 officially reported cases in mainland China after April 2020 occurred before the introduction of vaccines or treatments.
Here’s the key point: China’s Zero-Covid policy can contain the spread disease – but it would have no effect on the death rate of those infected.
In short, Beijing’s official case fatality rate of 0.0% despite tens of thousands of Covid cases over the past 20 months is a medical impossibility. It is clear that the data is deleted.
Smoking Gun #2: The dead that are NOT missing
China reports the crude death rate for the entire population (available from sources such as the World Bank and the United Nations).
In the decade to 2018, China’s crude death rate rose slowly, reflecting an aging population. (The global death rate was continuing its overall decline – with negative annual increases since 1950.)
In 2019, the increase in China’s crude death rate (deaths per 1000 population) jumped considerably above the previous trend line (according to UN data). Further abnormal increases occurred in 2020 and 2021. The rate of increase in China’s death rate accelerated by a factor of 6 (2019-2021) compared to the previous decade.
The jump in China’s numbers broke the trend line.
In absolute numbers of deaths, the sharp inflection in China added nearly a million “excess” deaths above the trend line.
In summary: a kind of public health crisis has taken place in China in recent years. People are dying at an accelerating rate.
Zero-Covid only works if the numbers work. If the figures are not reliable, the policy is in danger.
The numbers are unreliable.
In this column, we looked at two inconvenient facts based entirely on official figures from Beijing.
Tens of thousands of officially reported Covid cases across China (since April 2020) that have resulted in no deaths attributed to Covid? It is not possible, and not believable. China’s countermeasures, as extreme as they are, have no effect on mortality once a person is infected.
One million deaths in China above the long-term trend line in the last 3 years? It is clear that there is an (unexplained) public health disaster underway.
Is it Covid?
Perhaps the better question is: what else could it be?