Data on Cremations Raise Speculation That China’s Real Coronavirus Death Toll Could be in the Tens of Thousands

A stack of urns at a funeral home in Wuhan, the city’s official cremation rates, and reports of an overwhelmed health care system have prompted speculation that Wuhan’s real COVID-19 death toll could be in the tens of thousands—despite the Chinese government reporting 2,535 deaths from just over 50,000 coronavirus infections.

The coronavirus outbreak was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei in December 2019, before it then spread around the world, killing more than 33,000 globally as of Sunday. China’s aggressive containment methods have slowed the virus domestically, with official new cases reported plummeting in the past few weeks. So far, Beijing has confirmed roughly 81,000 cases and 3,300 deaths, mostly in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus’ outbreak. But many people, including U.S. politicians have accused China of underplaying their real coronavirus death figure.

Their skepticism were sparked by Chinese officials’ attempts to cover up the severity of the outbreak in the early stages—before the disease became widespread overseas—and the numerous revisions made to how domestic cases are counted. Wuhan’s medical system was overwhelmed during the height of the outbreak in China, which further raises questions as to the officially reported 2,535 deaths.

In the fourth quarter of 2019, Wuhan also saw 56,007 cremations, a figure 1,583 higher than the fourth quarter of 2018, and 2,231 more than the fourth quarter of 2017, according to data released by the Wuhan civil affairs agency. In 2019, the Wuhan population grew by only 1.1 percent from 2018, according to a U.N. projection. These figures could indicate that the novel virus’ emergence in December caused an increase in deaths—a trend that likely will have carried through to the first quarter of this year.

Photos began circulating across Chinese social media this week of urns arriving in the epicenter of the outbreak, after families who had lost loved ones to the novel coronavirus were instructed to pick up cremated ashes from one of the local funeral homes in the city. These images raised a fresh round of questions about the real coronavirus death toll in China, with domestic citizens and international critics using the number of urns to accuse the Chinese government of lying about their figures.

Newsweek reached out to the office of Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai via email for comment. The Chinese Foreign Ministry was also contacted for comment, but a response was not received in time for publication.

Trucks dropped off roughly 2,500 urns on both Wednesday and Thursday local time to one of the eight local funeral homes, a driver told Chinese media outlet Caixin. The news site also published another photo showing 3,500 urns stacked inside the facility. The number of urns that arrived in that one funeral home was far greater than the city’s official overall death COVID-19 toll.

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SOURCE: Newsweek, Christina Zhao