China reports two COVID-19 deaths, first in more than a year

Workers wearing protective gear look on as people wait to be tested for COVID-19 at a residential compound in Shanghai on March 18, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
SHANGHAI, China — China reported two COVID-19 deaths on Saturday, its first in more than a year, underlining the threat posed by an Omicron outbreak that has triggered the country's highest case count since the pandemic's onset.اضافة اعلان

The National Health Commission said both deaths occurred in Jilin, the northeastern province which has been hardest hit by a nationwide rise in cases that has prompted lockdowns or tight restrictions in several cities.  

The deaths were the first reported in mainland China since January 2021, and bring the country's death toll from the pandemic to 4,638. 

China reported 4,051 new infections on Saturday, down from 4,365 the day before, the health commission said, with more than half of the new cases in Jilin.

Beijing's communist leadership has touted the low death rate relative to other countries as evidence of the strength of its one-party governance model.

The two new deaths were buried in the health commission's daily report, and state-controlled media made little mention of them.

Officials in Jilin later said both victims were male, 65 and 87 years old, and both had a range of underlying health problems associated with advanced age.

Zero-COVID under pressure

The coronavirus emerged in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019 but China has largely kept it under control through strict border controls, lengthy quarantines, and targeted lockdowns.

But the highly transmissible Omicron variant is posing a challenge to the effectiveness and long-term viability of the government's zero-COVID strategy.

In recent weeks some official sources have suggested China may at some point need to co-exist with COVID-19 as other countries are doing, warning of the economic impact of mass lockdowns.

President Xi Jinping said on Thursday that China would stick with its zero-COVID strategy but allow for a more "targeted" approach.

While in the past full lockdowns could be expected for any outbreak, authorities around the country have responded with varying measures to the latest viral spread.

Some cities have been closed off, including the southern tech hub of Shenzhen, home to 17.5 million people. But Shenzhen's measures were partially eased following Xi's comments.

Shanghai, meanwhile, has moved schooling online and rolled out mass testing, but has avoided a full lockdown.

Authorities have said people with mild cases can isolate at central quarantine facilities, having previously sent all patients with any symptoms to specialist hospitals.

But tens of millions of people remain under stay-at-home orders across China due to the outbreak, which has sent daily reported new cases soaring from less than 100 just three weeks ago to several thousand per day.

Beijing also has watched nervously as Hong Kong has struggled to contain an Omicron outbreak that has sent deaths in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city soaring into the thousands.

Mainland China officials have moved to create new hospital beds over fears the virus could put the health system under strain.

Jilin has built eight "makeshift hospitals" and two quarantine centers.

State news outlets this week broadcast footage of dozens of giant cranes assembling temporary medical facilities in Jilin, which has only around 23,000 hospital beds for 24 million residents.

Long queues have formed outside mass testing sites across China and controls have been tightened at ports, raising fears of trade disruption.

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