China may see 'million' deaths, predict experts

STORY: The emergency ward of this hospital in the Shanghai suburbs was filled to the hallways with patients on Thursday.

A notice in the room said the wait to be seen was an average of five hours.

Packed emergency wards have become a common scene across China's hospitals after Beijing abruptly scrapped its stringent COVID controls last month.

The country has defended its COVID handling measures and said its "epidemic situation is controllable."

University of Hong Kong epidemiologist Benjamin Cowling told Reuters, COVID may have already peaked in big Chinese cities.

But he worried the upcoming Lunar New Year travel would spread COVID-19 to rural areas, where healthcare infrastructure was weaker.

“It's quite possible that there will be a million deaths or more this winter from COVID in China and that number could’ve been much larger if China had opened two years ago and hadn’t continued with zero-COVID before vaccines were available, there would have been many, many more deaths from COVID in China. But at the same time, that number, one million or more, that could be a much lower number if there was a better preparation and possibly better timing for the transition away from zero COVID.”

Some Chinese residents echoed that criticism on Thursday.

"They should have taken a series of actions before opening up, like advising what precautions people of a certain age should take, what young people should do, and allowed people to prepare some medication or distribute it, and at the very least ensure the pharmacies were well stocked. When all is ready, then it's time to open up."

China reported one new COVID death in the mainland for Wednesday, compared with five a day earlier, bringing its official death toll since the pandemic began to 5,259.

In some of the most critical remarks to date, the WHO's emergencies director Mike Ryan said on Wednesday, China's figures under-represented hospital admissions, intensive care unit patients and deaths.

China counts only those caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure as COVID deaths – a classification the WHO said was "too narrow".