Funeral directors disinfect January 30 in Wuhan after caring for a Covid-19 victim. - / AP / SIPA

  • On Monday March 30, Chinese authorities counted 3,305 deaths linked to Covid-19.
  • This official assessment is called into question by photos and testimonies from Wuhan, the starting point of the pandemic.
  • If elements question the reliability of this assessment, China must engage in further statistical work, which it does not seem ready to do for the moment, underlines a researcher with 20 Minutes .

As the first country hit by the Covid-19 epidemic, China is experiencing a decline in the number of infections. Monday, March 30, the official report transmitted by the National Health Commission of China amounted to 3,305 deaths and 81,158 confirmed cases of coronavirus since the beginning of the epidemic.

Has this assessment been underestimated? On March 27, the economic magazine Caixin published a photo showing stored funeral urns. The magazine said, "Some funerals in Wuhan [the starting point of the pandemic] are starting to allow people to come and collect the ashes of family members who died after quarantine. "

Some funeral houses in #Wuhan began to allow people to pick up ashes of family members who died after the lockdown.

- Caixin Global (@caixin) March 27, 2020

An article published by Radio Free Asia on the same day cast new doubt on these figures. RFA, funded by a US federal agency, reports calculations by Chinese Internet users, who estimate that 42,000 funeral urns could be returned to families between March 23 and April 5, a day of celebration dedicated to the dead in China. Another estimate, based on the cremation capacity of funeral homes, provides the figure of 46,800 dead.

Officially, China rejects these questions. "We have not underestimated [the number of deaths]", launched the ambassador of the People's Republic on the antenna of BFM TV Monday. "According to statistics from the municipality of Wuhan, in 2019, there were 51,200 deaths throughout the year, or about 4,000 per month on average," said Lu Shaye. As in winter, it is very cold, there will be more deaths than the average, maybe 5,000 per month. These are normal deaths. The figures from Wuhan Municipality are slightly different from those given by the ambassador: local authorities had registered 56,007 cremations in 2019.

Funeral homes have experienced “over-activity”

These photos of ballot boxes or queues in front of funeral homes are not sufficient to establish a calculation of excess mortality, analysis for 20 Minutes Antoine Bondaz, researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research: "These images do not mean big -thing [in themselves]. Funeral homes have been closed in Wuhan from January 23 until today. They reopen them because, in a few days, China is celebrating the feast of the dead [April 5]. It is very important for families to go to the cemetery. It is therefore quite normal that there are long tails. "All the more, he adds, that these photos" do not show only people who are going to recover the ashes of people who died from the Covid-19. Authorities in Wuhan, however, have placed restrictions on the observance of rites during the holiday.

However, the funerals in Wuhan "experienced an over-activity" for two months, said the specialist, who explains that new regulations were put in place for the funerals in the city at the end of January: "the cremation became free, the procedures were been accelerated. In February, teams from other provinces came as reinforcements. This over-activity raises another question: were all the deaths counted at the start of the epidemic? "Chinese doctors said deaths in January, with symptoms close to Covid-19, were not counted. It was not until January 20 that there were strong measures. This delay favored the spread of the epidemic. "

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Need for statistical work

The 3,305 deaths correspond to a count in real time. To obtain reliable statistics on the number of deaths from Covid-19, we should not focus on this count, but do statistical work over the long term, said the researcher. “We need to compare death statistics in normal times with statistics during the epidemic and link them with the symptoms associated with death. This will allow us to have a more detailed approach to the excess mortality caused by the epidemic. This type of calculation was made after the heat wave that hit France in 2003.

China does not, for the moment, give any signs showing that it will engage in this statistical work. "If China is transparent, it must engage in this post-crisis work", supports the researcher.

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