Shanghai (AFP) -
China said Monday that just three people have died from Covid-19 in Shanghai since a gruelling lockdown began last month, despite recording hundreds of thousands of cases of the fast-spreading Omicron variant in the eastern megacity.
Authorities said the first deaths from China's biggest outbreak since the virus wave in Wuhan over two years ago were three elderly people aged 89 to 91, all of whom had underlying health issues.
Beijing insists that its zero-Covid policy of hard lockdowns, mass testing and lengthy quarantines has curbed fatalities and avoided the public health crises that have engulfed much of the rest of the world.
But some have cast doubt on official figures in a nation with low vaccination rates among its vast elderly population. Hong Kong, in comparison, has attributed nearly 9,000 deaths to Covid-19 since Omicron first surged there in January.
Unverified social media posts have also claimed unreported deaths -- typically before being scrubbed from the internet.
The three reported victims 'deteriorated into severe cases after going into hospital', according to an official Shanghai government account. The city's health commissioner on Sunday noted that 62 percent of residents aged over 60 had two vaccine doses, while only 38 percent in the demographic had three.
The eastern business hub has groaned under a patchwork of restrictions since March, with many of the city's 25 million residents confined to their homes as daily caseloads topped 25,000 -- a modest figure by global standards but virtually unheard of in China.
Many inhabitants have chafed under the curbs, flooding social media with complaints of food shortages, spartan quarantine conditions and heavy-handed enforcement, and circulating footage of rare protests faster than government censors can delete them.
But officials have remained inflexible, vowing to continue isolating anyone who tests positive regardless of whether they show signs of the disease.
Asymptomatic infections have driven the surge, with nearly 90 percent of the more than 22,000 new cases on Monday displaying no illness, according to the municipal health commission.
China last reported new Covid-19 deaths on March 19 -- two people in the northeastern rustbelt province of Jilin -- the first such acknowledged deaths in more than a year.
- Political play -
China's ruling Communist Party has touted its hardline pandemic approach as proof that it places human life above material concerns -- unlike many Western democracies, which it argues have sacrificed lives by failing to stop the virus.
Beijing has also acknowledged that dropping restrictions could let the pathogen run amok through its creaking and under-resourced healthcare system, potentially causing millions of deaths.
The fast-ageing nation's hundreds of millions of elderly are a particular concern. Official figures show vaccination rates lag significantly among those over 60 -- a group more likely than others to develop severe disease if they contract the virus.
But experts say political considerations are also at play, with the party staking a degree of its legitimacy on crushing emerging outbreaks in a year that will likely see President Xi Jinping secure a precedent-busting third term in office.
'This is a sensitive and critical year for the regime,' said Lynette Ong, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
'China has always given so much prominence to social stability, and a health crisis is a potentially big disrupter.'
- Desperation -
Those concerns may have continued to motivate officials in Shanghai, who have zealously implemented lockdown curbs 'to the point that it becomes silly' even as the highly transmissible Omicron strain refuses to be quelled, Ong said.
Videos on social media have illustrated creeping desperation in the city, with clips showing residents scuffling with hazmat-suited police and bursting through barricades demanding food.
Internet users have also blasted the filmed killing of a pet corgi by a health worker and a now-softened policy of separating infected children from their virus-free parents.
Other posts -- not verified by AFP -- and overseas media outlets have previously said that elderly patients in the city had died after contracting Covid-19 even as no fatalities appeared in official figures.
City health official Wu Qianyu said at a Monday press conference that the 'direct cause' of the three confirmed deaths was 'underlying disease'.