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The number of people infected with COVID-19 in China is not public. Satellite images seem to show that many people are dying

The number of people infected with COVID-19 in China is not public. Satellite images seem to show that many people are dying

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A satellite image taken on January 3, 2022 shows a Huzhou funeral home with a full parking lot. An image taken last January shows far fewer cars. Credit – Maxar

Recent satellite images taken of funeral homes and crematoriums in several Chinese cities show a significant increase in activity as COVID-19 cases rise across the country and as reliable death toll numbers have become difficult to come by.

At the beginning of December after mass unrestChina shifted drastically from its strict zero-covid policy to a massive reopening. Experts have warned that an initial wave of cases could lead to up to a million victims, due to obvious deficiencies in the immunity of the population against infectious variants. Official figures recorded 37 deaths related to COVID-19 between December 7 and January 8 – although photos and videos of scenes at funeral homes and funerals shared On social media suggested the actual number was higher.

Since the start of the pandemic, Beijing has been accused of hiding its actual COVID-19 data, especially after neighboring Hong Kong, which also followed zero-Covid-19 policies, recorded some 1.5% of adults 80 and older die of the disease by the end of their fifth wave of infection. Hong Kong and mainland China also struggled to vaccinate their elderly populations, and infections in Hong Kong spiked in early 2022 after an outbreak of the Omicron variant.

Read more: Why China can’t just end its policy of zero fight against COVID

While it’s not unusual for the country’s overall death toll to rise during the winter season, more than 30 images obtained by TIME from space technology firm Maxar offer insight into the unique current situation through historical comparisons. An increase in foot traffic can be seen at crematoria and funeral homes this winter compared to snapshots from the same periods in previous years.

China — which once touted the world’s lowest number of COVID-related deaths, attributed by the Communist Party to continued enforcement of testing, quarantines and lockdowns in its “zero COVID” approach — is now facing criticism from the World Health Organization for alleged underreporting of the current number of deaths in the country.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert and professor emeritus at Hong Kong Baptist University, told TIME that the satellite images “show that the death toll is much higher than what the authorities say.”

What do satellite images show?

Snapshots of the Tongzhou District Funeral Home in the capital Beijing suggest the creation of a new parking lot by December 24, 2022, showing dozens of vehicles. The lot did not exist in a snapshot taken three weeks earlier.

Погребалният дом Tongzhou в Пекин на 24 декември 2022 г.<span class=Maxar” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/CI5zEf2dnkFWamM6QYx4rA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTM5OQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/time_72/c8d941fe84aee36988ad8eafaee4682a”/>

Tongzhou Funeral Home in Beijing on December 24, 2022.Max

Погребалният дом Tongzhou в Пекин на 6 декември 2022 г.<span class=Maxar” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Ax.QdJS4u_Hb10O20IHEkw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTM5OQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/time_72/b0ec7e8567f8b1a24ce27f831fc923be” />

Tongzhou Funeral Home in Beijing on December 6, 2022.Max

In the eastern province of Jiangsu, dozens of vehicles can be seen lined up outside and parked next to the Nanjing Funeral Home complex, according to a Jan. 3 snapshot. The vehicles were not captured in a previous image taken on November 9, 2022.

Пътища около погребалния дом Нанкин в провинция Дзянсу на 3 януари 2023 г.<span class=Maxar” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/pE2WaQs26GrtUR3z.TgJFg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQxOA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/time_72/2b5e5d4de0a62fb2ee631458a3d4d384″ />

Roads around the Nanjing Funeral Home in Jiangsu Province on January 3, 2023.Max

Пътища около погребалния дом Нанкин в провинция Дзянсу на 9 ноември 2022 г.<span class=Maxar” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/ctkcR75h1CzJDzWw8sCBlg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQyMA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/time_72/207ca1face97d92cc8164726ba93109d”/>

Roads around the Nanjing Funeral Home in Jiangsu Province on November 9, 2022.Max

In Chengdu, Sichuan province, satellite images showed many vehicles, including white ones resembling the vans normally used as hearses, around the Donglin Funeral Home. A photo of the area taken a year earlier on December 18, 2021 shows almost no vehicles in the area.

В близост до погребалния дом Donglin в Чънду на 21 декември 2022 г.<span class=Maxar” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Uq8IIcedITAChRFbkpsbmg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTM5OQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/time_72/2d93163ee4ab4f57594d9b99568d0e47″/>

Near the Donglin Funeral Home in Chengdu on December 21, 2022.Max

В близост до погребалния дом Donglin в Чънду на 18 декември 2021 г.<span class=Maxar” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/zyrkNdaarj_nX8BL3t3Hxg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTM5OQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/time_72/6e208bf3b5a6e029a8f6c3b7a3f8bf89″/>

Near the Donglin Funeral Home in Chengdu on December 18, 2021.Max

Why doesn’t China release numbers?

China has not updated its daily reports on COVID-19 for three days, a sharp change in practice that casts doubt on the country’s transparency regarding the public health situation.

Senior Chinese health officials on Wednesday said it was too early for an exact number of deaths and infections from COVID-19, according to a state newspaper China Daily. China also only counts deaths from pneumonia and respiratory failure as COVID-related deaths, while other governments use different metrics.

Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control, said the Center plans to release redundant mortality data to allay concerns about the reliability of their statistics. There is no set date when this data will be available.

Cabestan, the professor emeritus, says the lack of reliable information about the COVID-19 situation in China can damage people’s trust in authorities. “All this information blackout is backfiring [on] government,” he tells TIME.

But China is unlikely to be transparent about the numbers anytime soon, as the government, Cabestan explains, probably believes that keeping quiet will protect its image and that even when funeral homes are in high demand, most citizens will focus on returning to normal life and you will forget about the hiccups of politics.

“It’s a political decision,” Cabestan says.




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