China is mourning a growing number of public figures lost to Covid-19, from academics to opera singers, whose deaths have complicated the government’s efforts to minimise the scale of the unfolding outbreak sweeping across the country.

Since authorities last month scrapped most restrictions instituted to keep the virus at bay, coronavirus has rampaged through China’s vulnerable population with unparalleled speed, leaving hospitals inundated with the sick and elderly and crematoria overwhelmed with demand.

The havoc has left China’s propaganda organs struggling to shape a coherent narrative and defend the rollback of President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-Covid strategy, especially after spending two years playing up the death toll in the west as evidence of China’s superior governance.

In the past few weeks, a slew of obituaries published by companies, institutes, schools and families has undermined the official narrative that the outbreak is under control and the variants prevalent in China are less severe by illustrating the human toll of the easing of restrictions.

Shanghai Kehua Bio-Engineering announced last week that its founder Tang Weiguo, 66, who built the group over more than three decades into one of China’s leading clinical testing companies, had died of Covid-19 and underlying disease on December 25.

“Old boss Tang, have a good onward journey,” the company, which recently shifted into producing millions of rapid Covid tests, wrote in an obituary posted on its website.

Covid-related complications also claimed the lives in Beijing of 39-year-old opera singer Chu Lanlan and famous dancer and politician Zhao Qing, who died at 87, according to friends and relatives. Wang Tao, 52, a deputy dean at Inner Mongolia University of Science and Technology, died of Covid on December 30, the school announced.

At Nanjing university, former students mourned the death of 87-year-old Hu Fuming, a philosopher and retired professor and author of a famous article that sparked criticism of former leader Mao Zedong following the Cultural Revolution.

“Changing history and guiding the people — this is truly what a great scholar should be,” wrote one of Hu’s students in a social media post.

Some of the tributes mentioned Covid, but most have attributed deaths to unspecified diseases, another source of controversy in the government’s efforts to play down the exit wave.

Top health officials have sharply narrowed the definition of Covid deaths to only patients with respiratory failure or pneumonia, excluding those who died with other conditions despite testing positive for the virus.

China has reported 5,258 Covid deaths nationwide as of Tuesday, including just 25 since December 1, despite projections of as many as 1mn fatalities in the current wave. No deaths have been reported in Shanghai, Nanjing and Inner Mongolia since the infection rate exploded last month.

The National Health Commission later said the published death totals were only for “research and study references”. 

The implausible official statistics have led Chinese internet sleuths to begin recording deaths independently, with some online obituaries turning into virtual bulletin boards as users anonymously added news of lost relatives.

Students at Tsinghua and Peking universities in Beijing and other academic institutions have been tallying deaths among retired professors, while other internet sleuths have counted at least 16 deaths among the 1,831 top figures at China’s sciences and engineering academies.

In response to the growing attention, the Chinese Academy of Engineering deleted tributes it had posted to social media for five deceased engineers on December 23.

“The academicians who died these past few days got obituaries. It’s unclear if any more will though,” commented one social media user. The academy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The clamour has forced Chinese officials to qualify widely discredited public data.

Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that he would lead a team to calculate excess mortality data and “figure out what could have potentially been underestimated”.

Excess mortality, or the number of deaths from all causes above “normal” circumstances, is a relatively reliable gauge of the toll of Covid outbreaks.

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