Jan 17, 2023 - Podcasts

China's real COVID death toll

Throughout the pandemic, China has consistently claimed very few deaths from the coronavirus. Over the weekend, China's National Health Commission announced a significant revision, raising the official number of COVID deaths since last December from 37 to 60,000. But big questions about data transparency remain.

  • Plus, how politicians use MLK's words to prop up opposing arguments.
  • And, more classified documents are found associated with President Biden.

Guests: Axios' Russell Contreras and The Washington Post's Lily Kuo.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Margaret Talev, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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MARGARET: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Tuesday, January 17th.

I’m Margaret Talev, director of the democracy journalism and citizenship institute at Syracuse University, and Axios’ senior contributor…in today for Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: how politicians use MLK’s words to prop up opposing arguments. Plus, more classified documents are found associated with President Biden. But first, China’s real COVID death toll. That’s today’s One Big Thing.

MARGARET: Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, China has consistently claimed very few deaths from the coronavirus. But the World Health Organization is now putting pressure on China to be more transparent. And over the weekend, China’s National Health Commission announced a significant revision… raising the official number of Covid deaths since last December from 37…to 60,000. Before this announcement, the Chinese government had claimed only 5,272 Covid deaths throughout the entire pandemic.

LILY KUO: They've really touted the low death rate in China and pointed to that compared to the high death counts in other countries. Especially Western countries like the U.S., as evidence of how China and the Chinese system is superior.

MARGARET: That’s Lily Kuo, China bureau chief at the Washington Post.

But there are still big questions about China’s data transparency. Some experts put the death toll of this most recent wave at over six times the number China is claiming. Beijing also still hasn’t provided detailed genome sequencing requested by the WHO, and global health officials are worried that could mean new variants are spreading undetected.

As China continues to fight its current covid wave ahead of the Chinese New Year which starts this weekend, host Niala Boodhoo spoke to Lily Kuo about the investigation for the Post that used satellite imagery, first hand video and on the ground reporting to show how dire the situation in China really is.

LILY: We looked at traffic outside of funeral homes, in December and January. When we were hearing reports of the surge and infections compared to the same time period last year. And then what we found in those pictures was a big increase in traffic outside of these homes. IN one case, at a funeral home in Beijing, they built a new parking lot very quickly, in late December as cases were increasing. We also spoke with staff, at funeral homes and also residents who went to funeral homes about what they were seeing. And so in those cases, people told us about incinerators that had to be operating 24/7, Totally overwhelmed staff, Residents who went to their funeral homes talked about these long lines. One woman told us that, you know, she saw people transporting the bodies of their deceased relatives on these utility trollies, because apparently those people couldn't get vans. People talked about having to wait in line for an entire day and overnight just to get a slot to cremate their deceased relatives. We wanted visual confirmation of something that I think a lot of people know is happening. So I mean, a lot of people who have relatives in China or who work in China, they, you know, among their family and friends, they could probably count more than 40 deaths in the past month. So we wanted to just show it, you know, something that can't really be argued.

NIALA: How was the Chinese population reacting to these deaths?

LILY: There's a real range of responses to the government handling of the outbreak in general, and some people are angry that the healthcare system seems to be unprepared even after three years. Obviously people that have lost their loved ones, or their friends, or their colleagues,this has hit them very hard. We spoke to a man in Shanghai who had waited outside a funeral home all night to get a slot for his dad who had just turned 60 and died a month later from Covid. He was very despondent and one of the things that he said that really struck us was how his father, even though he had Covid on his death certificate, the cause of death was underlying disease. And the person that we spoke to said something like, you know, “well, isn't a blatant lie.” So I think that there is a real sense of anger and frustration overall with how the government is handling this and also with how they're dealing with these deaths and the lack of recognition.

NIALA: Lily Kuo was the China Bureau chief at the Washington Post. Thank you so much for speaking with us. We will include a link to your reporting in our show notes so everyone can see it. Thanks, Lily.

LILY: Thanks so much for having me.

More classified documents are found associated with President Biden

MARGARET: In Washington this weekend we saw more developments in the story of President Biden’s handling of classified documents. The White House has now disclosed that documents dating back to his time as vice president, improperly stored at a former office and two of his homes, were found on four different days since November.

My take so far: This probably isn’t going away anytime soon. The scope still appears much smaller than the haul of documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago, and unlike Donald Trump’s efforts to block federal investigators, President Biden and his team are cooperating with a special counsel the U.S. Attorney General has appointed to investigate. But, this is multiple documents in multiple locations over more time, with a special counsel, and both a special White House lawyer and the president’s personal lawyer involved, and a new Republican House majority demanding information, and the 2024 presidential election gearing up.

There’s still basic information we don’t have about the documents’ contents and how they got there, so it’s hard to know just how big a threat it is to national security and just how big a deal it is legally or politically. Certainly many Republicans will continue to seize on the opportunity to downplay former President Trump’s document handling. And it will almost certainly prompt a debate going forward about how outgoing presidents’ — and vice presidents’ — documents are handled.

In a moment, how politicians use the words of MLK.


How politicians use MLK’s words to prop up opposing arguments

MARGARET: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Margaret Talev.

This long weekend, Americans celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We asked you what MLK’s words and this holiday mean to you – here’s what one of you told us:

ANTHONY: Often I feel the opportunity to reflect seems like it's rushed and I think it's because what is often used and cherry picked about Martin Luther King is a way to shadow the ignorance of what is real about America.

MARGARET: Axios’ Russell Contreras reported on this very idea over the weekend, and spoke to host Niala Boodhoo.

NIALA: Russ. I think we need to start with how Dr. King's words, particularly when it comes to the” I Have a Dream” speech, are being used?

RUSSELL CONTRERAS: Well, Dr. King, when he gave a speech at the March on Washington in 1963, he would mention that he has a dream eight times, and one of the phrases that he said is really powerful and has been repeated over and over. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. He would say this at this moment, it would get repeated over and over, and for whatever reason, we've locked Dr. King at that moment.

NIALA: What do activists say is the danger of freezing Dr. King at the “I have a dream” moment?

RUSSELL: Well, if you freeze him just on those phrases, you ignore things that he even said in the same speech like he spoke of police brutality, he spoke of an unpaid check to Black America. And you also ignore his evolution that would change Dr. King later in life. For example, in 1967, he spoke to NBC News and when they asked him about his dream, asked him about the Voting Rights Act, everything else, he would say, you know, actually I believe my dream has become a nightmare.And then he gave this very beautiful comparison to the emancipation of slaves not getting land to white peasants from Europe getting land in the west, seeing how an economic based helped them, and there was no economic based for African Americans.

This sounds very similar to the discussion around critical race theory going on in public schools across the country. Conservatives will argue, Dr. King was against pointing out race he would be against critical race theory. Civil rights advocates respond by saying that's not true. If you look at his later words, he would be supporting diversity in education, and he would be supporting this concept of critical race theory in graduate schools. So it becomes a war of words.

For example, let's look at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a couple of years ago, he was pushing the Stop Woke Act and he invoked the words of Dr. King. And Ron DeSantis said this, “you think about what MLK stood for he said he didn't want people judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.” He was using that phrase, which we talked about earlier, from the I Have a Dream speech and throwing it back out and saying, no, actually Dr. King would be against anything that specifically mentioned race to fight discrimination and what civil rights advocates would counter and say, that's a falsehood that's misusing what Dr. King said at one moment and ignoring what he said the next.

NIALA: Russell Contreras is Axios’ Race and Justice reporter. Thanks Russ.

RUSSELL: Thanks for having me.

MARGARET: That’s all we’ve got for you today!

I’m Margaret Talev in for Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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