Feb 26, 2021 08:06 PM

Wuhan’s Death Rate 50% Higher Than Normal During Epidemic’s Peak, Study Shows

Photo: Ding Gang/Caixin
Photo: Ding Gang/Caixin

More than 50% more people in Wuhan died in the first three months of last year than would normally have been expected, mostly due to Covid-19, new research shows.

The central Chinese city, where the coronavirus was first detected, went into lockdown in January 2020 as a fast-spreading outbreak of the disease overwhelmed its health care system.

As a result of the epidemic, eight times more people in Wuhan died of pneumonia between January and March than would typically occur during that period, according to a paper published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal.

The city also recorded a “more modest” rise in deaths from certain other ailments like heart disease and diabetes. But mortality rates in the province surrounding Wuhan and in China as a whole were both lower than normal, perhaps due to restrictions curbing the spread of Covid-19, the study said.

Scientists at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the country’s main epidemic control agency, found the observed total mortality rate in Wuhan was 1,147 people per 100,000, a 56% increase on the predicted rate of 735 per 100,000.

The researchers primarily attributed the rise to a spike in deaths from pneumonia that were “mainly Covid-19 related.” The lung condition killed some 275 people per 100,000 during the first three months of last year compared with around 33 per 100,000 in normal times.

Over the same period, Wuhan also recorded nearly 30% more deaths from heart disease and almost twice as many deaths from diabetes, according to the study.

The figures contrast sharply with the lower-than-normal death rates in other parts of China. In Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, the observed mortality rate due to pneumonia and chronic lung diseases were respectively 28% and 23% lower than predicted, even accounting for excess deaths from Covid-19, the researchers found.

Excluding Hubei, China’s overall death rate was 675 people per 100,000 in the first three months of 2020, some 5.6% lower than the normal rate, the researchers found. They also noted “significantly” lower mortality due to pneumonia, chronic lung disease and road traffic incidents.

They concluded that the lack of any “significant” rise in China’s overall death rate suggests “the success of the rapid control of the spread” of the virus, adding that the pandemic’s “associated behavioral changes,” like wearing face masks and social distancing, “seemed to have other unintended health benefits” in addition to warding off Covid-19.

The scientists used mortality data from a national disease surveillance system to measure average death rates across the Chinese mainland during the aforementioned period.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 was first detected in Wuhan in December 2019. Government officials plunged the city into lockdown during the following month as hospitals buckled under mounting infections and deaths.

The restrictions were eased in April, after China brought its domestic outbreaks under control.

Wuhan has so far confirmed 50,356 cases of Covid-19 and 3,869 deaths, according to official figures (link in Chinese). The vast majority of infections and deaths occurred in the first quarter of last year.

Nationwide, China has recorded (link in Chinese) 89,877 cases and 4,636 deaths, according to the National Health Commission.

Contact reporter Matthew Walsh ( and editor Michael Bellart (

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