China reports first coronavirus deaths in over a year amid omicron surge

China’s national health authorities reported two 新冠病毒 deaths on Saturday, the first recorded rise in the death toll since January last year, as the country battles an omicron-driven surge.

The deaths, both in north-eastern Jilin province, bring the country’s coronavirus death toll to 4,638.

China reported 2,157 new community transmissions on Saturday, with the majority in Jilin. The province has instituted a travel ban, with people needing permission from police to travel across borders.

China has continued to impose a “zero-Covid” strategy since the initial outbreak in Wuhan. The strategy focuses on mass testing and strict lockdowns, with residents banned from leaving their homes until all new cases are either found in quarantine or through contact tracing.

在实践中, it meant the country has seen relatively few infections from the virus because clusters are tamped down as quickly as they’re discovered. The strategy has received popular support and prevented the large numbers of deaths seen in other countries, many of which have started to forgo any kind of social distancing measures.

With China now facing its worst outbreak since late 2019, officials have vowed to double down on the zero-tolerance strategy to contain the current surge. 然而, 中国的领头羊, Xi Jinping, acknowledged for the first time the burden of the measures on Thursday, saying that China should seek “maximum effect” with “minimum cost” in controlling the virus.

China had recorded 4,636 deaths since the pandemic began in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019. It revised its death toll once in April 2020, adding in new deaths that were not initially counted as the pandemic overwhelmed the city’s hospitals and other systems.

Mainland China’s Covid-19 data is counted separately from that in 香港, which is a special administrative region in China and is facing a much larger outbreak with a higher death toll.

Hong Kong’s leader on Friday warned against making “divisive comments” about health workers sent by China to help contain Covid, as tensions over their deployment complicated efforts to control a spiralling outbreak.

The finance hub on Friday passed one million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, with nearly 5,500 deaths recorded in a population of 7.4 million – one of the highest death rates in the developed world.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and her administration have been widely criticised over the city’s lack of preparedness for the Omicron-fuelled wave, which has left hospitals and morgues overwhelmed.

China this week sent about 400 healthcare workers to bolster the ranks of Hong Kong’s anti-pandemic staff, a move made possible after waiving licensing requirements for non-local doctors.

But Hong Kong media have questioned how Chinese medics could be held accountable in the event of medical mishaps or patient complaints – a line of questioning that drew ire from pro-Beijing groups this week.

Lam on Friday said the Chinese medics were working in tough conditions in Hong Kong in a closed-loop bubble at makeshift hospitals far from their families.

“Why do we want to make all this fuss and make divisive comments?” she said at a press conference. “You can ask questions to understand more about their deployment, their contributions and maybe their feelings in time to come, but don’t make it into another political issue.”

Now TV, a Hong Kong news channel, on Thursday apologised after one of its reporters asked the government how complaints against Chinese medics would be handled.

The channel had come under intense criticism from a pro-Beijing think tank, which called for the reporter to be fired and accused her of “hate speech” that breached the city’s sweeping national security law.

With Associated Press and Agence France-Presse

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