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Hearses wait to enter a crematorium, in Beijing, on Dec. 22.STF/AFP/Getty Images

A deluge of COVID-19 cases is taking a toll across China, with cities facing food, labour and medicine shortages even as official numbers downplay the spread of the virus.

China reported about 3,000 new cases and zero deaths Thursday, numbers that are starkly out of line with reports from around the country of mass infection and busy crematoriums.

Beijing has faced public anger and international criticism for changing how it defines both figures, in what appears to be an attempt to understate the ramifications of its abrupt discontinuation of the country’s zero-COVID policy this month.

On Tuesday, China’s National Health Commission said only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure in patients infected with the virus would be classified as COVID-19 fatalities.

Speaking in Geneva the following day, a senior World Health Organization official urged China not to allow “the definition to get in the way of proper data.”

Michael Ryan said the way COVID-19 deaths are now measured in China is “quite narrow, it’s quite focused on respiratory failure” and could “very much underestimate the true death toll.”

He also noted “many anecdotal reports of pressure around the health system, infectious disease clinics filling up, emergency rooms filling up and even ICUs filling up in certain situations.”

Even outside the health care system, the current wave is causing chaos, with many businesses struggling with labour shortages. It has been particularly bad for the delivery sector, with drivers at high risk of infection but vitally important for ensuring that food and other supplies reach people isolating at home.

“Many delivery people are infected,” said Zhang Hui, who works at a fruit store in Shanghai. He said it has become common to have people place orders online but not have anyone to pick them up.

“I have several orders here that have been waiting for over two hours,” Mr. Zhang said. “Things have been like this for four to five days.”

He added that supplies are not too much of an issue – “the greatest shortage is of humans.”

Multiple cities, including Shanghai, Chongqing and parts of Beijing, have urged people who are not working full-time to take up delivery jobs, and delivery services are offering bonuses and higher rates for drivers.

“We encourage you to join the work force and bring warmth to households in this special time,” the Shanghai E-Purchasing Chamber of Commerce said in an advertisement Tuesday, noting the “greater pressure” on delivery networks.

Shanghai resident Jimmy Dai said the shopping app he usually orders from had pop-ups urging people to go to stores if they could. But when he went to a local market, “all the fresh food shelves were empty.”

“I’m not scared of COVID at all – getting infected is just a matter of time,” Mr. Dai said. “It’s the food supply and people’s rushing to stockpile that makes me uncomfortable.”

As restrictions lifted this month, the government warned people against buying large quantities of medicine in particular, but stocks of painkillers and other COVID-19 treatments nevertheless quickly dwindled in many places.

The Financial Times reported Thursday that local governments have begun requisitioning rapid testing kits, masks and cold and fever medicine produced in local factories, redirecting orders that would otherwise go to the private market. The State Post Bureau of China said in a statement that it was making the delivery of epidemic control supplies, particularly medicine, a top priority ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins in January.

The ubiquitous testing booths around Chinese cities, a vital part of the zero-COVID strategy, are being converted into fever clinics to reduce pressure on the health care system, state media reported. And efforts are under way to close the vaccination gap, a vital task if China is to avoid mass death from the current wave – with some models projecting more than a million fatalities in the coming months.

“Achieving higher rates of vaccination, particularly in the vulnerable, has resulted in the impact of Omicron waves being much less on the health system,” said Dr. Ryan, the WHO official, adding that while vaccination rates in China “on the face of it are high, they still lag behind in terms of overall coverage, particularly when you look at people over 60.”

With files from Alexandra Li and Reuters.

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