China’s population shrinks for the first time since 1961

Beijing’s stringent zero-COVID policies that were in place for three years have caused further damage to the bleak demographic outlook, population experts have said.

Researchers this week said the 60,000 death COVID death toll revealed by Beijing on the weekend was likely less than a tenth of the real numbers. Their modelling, based on current infection rates of about 65 per cent of the population, pointed to a possible 1.2 million to1.6 million COVID deaths by the end of 2023.

It is not clear how COVID deaths may have contributed to the population figures.

“This reported number of COVID-19 deaths might be the tip of the iceberg,” said Zuo-Feng Zhang, chair of the department of epidemiology at the Fielding School of Public Health at University of California, Los Angeles.

While the figure is roughly in line with what Zhang estimated might be coming from the country’s hospitals, he said it was only a fraction of the total COVID deaths across the country.

Using a report from the National School of Development at Peking University that found 64 per cent of the population was infected by mid-January, he estimated 900,000 people would have died in the previous five weeks based on a conservative 0.1 per cent case fatality rate. That means the official hospital death count is less than 7 per cent of the total mortality seen during the outbreak.

It could be that many of the country’s deaths occurred in nursing care facilities or at home, explaining some of the undercount, she said, as the latest disclosure only counted hospital deaths. Reports of overwhelmed crematoriums around the country suggest excess mortality is at a high level.

The group currently estimates China’s total COVID-related death count is about 390,000, with a potential range of 77,000 to 945,000 based on fatalities seen in other countries, she said.

Although local governments have since 2021 rolled out measures to encourage people to have more babies, including tax deductions, longer maternity leave and housing subsidies, the steps are not expected to arrest the long-term trend.

Online searches for baby strollers on the Chinese search engine Baidu dropped 17 per cent in 2022 and are down 41 per cent since 2018, while searches for baby bottles are down more than a third since 2018. In contrast, searches for elderly care homes surged eight-fold last year.

The reverse is playing out in India, where Google Trends shows a 15 per cent year-on-year increase in searches for baby bottles in 2022, while searches for cribs rose almost five-fold.

Reuters, Bloomberg

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