China has reported nearly 60,000 deaths related to COVID-19 since early December as the virus spirals out-of-control. Infections have surged in the People’s Republic since the nation lifted its strict “Zero Covid” policy in the face of growing public backlash on December 7 last year. As of just the past week, however, China had been officially suggesting that there had only been 37 deaths — out of a population of 1.4 billion — since December, having redefined its criteria for recording Covid deaths such that only those who died of respiratory failure would be counted.

The newly-released figures reveal that a whopping 59,938 people — with an average age of 80.3 — have died with coronavirus in Chinese hospitals between December 8 and January 12.

Of those, 5,503 were said to have been caused to respiratory failure as a result of infection with SARS‑CoV‑2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The remaining 54,435 deaths, meanwhile, officials attributed to a combination of Covid and other diseases.

Beijing has asserted that both COVID-19 cases and emergency hospitalizations in China have now peaked and are on the decline.

National Health Commission Bureau of Medical Administration Director General Dr Yahui Jiao told a press conference that “the number of fever clinic visitors is generally in a declining trend after peaking both in cities and rural areas”.

She went on to add that the overall ratio of patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 is also now falling steadily.

Officials, however, have previously expressed concern that a fresh wave of the virus may hit China’s rural interior late next week, as millions of people prepare to journey back to their hometowns to celebrate the week-long holiday around the Lunar New Year, which begins on January 21 this year.

In fact, on January 2, Dr Jiao herself told state broadcaster China Central Television that surging cases in rural areas as a result of the celebrations were expected to pose an “enormous challenge”.