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AP uncovers the real reasons behind Shanghai’s improbably low official COVID death toll

Medical workers collects swab samples from residents in a lockdown area in the Jingan district of western Shanghai, April 4, 2022. AP’s reporting revealed that Shanghai’s unconventional methodology for recording COVID cases and deaths almost certainly results in a marked undercount. official numbers calculates virus cases and deaths, almost certainly resulting in a marked undercount.China has sent more than 10,000 health workers from across the country to Shanghai, including 2,000 military medical staff, as it struggles to stamp out a rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreak in China's largest city. (AP Photo / Chen Si)

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The numbers didn’t add up.

As Shanghai’s COVID-19 cases soared into the hundreds of thousands, no deaths were reported in the official statistics for weeks, even as anecdotes about lost loved ones leaked on social media. AP journalists Huizhong Wu, based in Taipei, and Beijing-based Dake Kang learned why, shedding light on how the official numbers are blurred by the narrower, less-transparent and sometimes inconsistent way that China tallies COVID-19 statistics.

In a challenging reporting environment, their story explained what was behind the discrepancy, revealing the true extent of the outbreak and showcasing the power of fact-based AP reporting.

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At left, a medical worker conducts COVID-19 tests for residents, April 10, 2022, after a confirmed case was found in the section of Shanghai. At right, residents rest in a temporary hospital converted from the National Exhibition and Convention Center to quarantine COVID-positive people in Shanghai, China, April 18, 2022. – AP Photo / Chen Si, left; Chinatopix via AP

Kang received an early tip that the situation in Shanghai was spiraling out of control. Using sources he has developed over time,he was able to determine the key factors behind the questionable numbers: Chinese health authorities’ narrow criteria for what is classified as a COVID-19 death,confusion over Shanghai’s definition of asymptomatic cases and two mismatched tracking systems that give conflicting data on cases and test results.

The reporting was corroborated through interviews with family members of patients who had tested positive,a family’s publicly released phone call with a government health official, an online archive compiled by families of the dead and records of official statements.

Wu focused on the human side of the story,finding survivors who lost loved ones to the disease — not an easy task in an environment where talking to foreign media on a sensitive issue can have consequences. Police in Shanghai had gone to families of survivors,warning them not to talk to foreign journalists. Many of the people Wu reached out to refused to talk to her. She used Chinese social media and previous contacts to find interview subjects, some of them developed out of her previous story on deaths in a Shanghai hospital for the elderly during the outbreak. Her diligence showed the real-life consequences of the government’s policies,making the story both engaging and compelling.

For determined reporting to document what was really happening in Shanghai,and why the official numbers were so misleading, Wu and Kang share AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winner honors.

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