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China reports COVID deaths, first in over a year

SHANGHAI (AFP) – China reported two COVID-19 deaths yesterday, its first in more than a year, underlining the threat posed by an Omicron outbreak that has triggered the country’s highest case count since the pandemic’s onset.

The National Health Commission said both deaths occurred in Jilin, the northeastern province which has been hardest hit by a nationwide rise in cases that has prompted lockdowns or tight restrictions in several cities.

The deaths were the first reported in mainland China since January 2021, and bring the country’s death toll from the pandemic to 4,638.

China reported 4,051 new infections yesterday, down from 4,365 the day before, the health commission said, with more than half of the new cases in Jilin.

Beijing’s communist leadership has touted the low death rate relative to other countries as evidence of the strength of its one-party governance model.

The two new deaths were buried in the health commission’s daily report, and state-controlled media made little mention of them.

A staff member walks at the Fire Eye laboratory before it opens in Yantai in China’s eastern Shandong province. PHOTO: AFP

Officials in Jilin later said both victims were male, 65 and 87 years old, and both had a range of underlying health problems associated with advanced age.

The coronavirus emerged in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019 but China has largely kept it under control through strict border controls, lengthy quarantines and targetted lockdowns.

But the highly transmissible Omicron variant is posing a challenge to the effectiveness and long-term viability of the government’s zero-COVID strategy.

In recent weeks some official sources have suggested China may at some point need to co-exist with COVID-19 as other countries are doing, warning of the economic impact of mass lockdowns.

President Xi Jinping said on Thursday that China would stick with its zero-COVID strategy but allow for a more “targetted” approach.