A new report by an international human rights group estimates that more than 220,000 Tibetans over the age of 60 could die this year from COVID-19 in western China’s Tibet Autonomous Region amid a surge of the highly infectious respiratory virus and its variants in China.
International Campaign for Tibet, which issued the report on Thursday, based its projections on demographic data and health studies from Japan and Brazil as well as first-hand accounts from Tibetans who have reported on the number of bodies being taken to sky burial sites and Chinese census data.
The group estimates that 221,218 Tibetans age 60 and older could die amid a current COVID surge in Tibet, including 45,469 Tibetans who are 80 and older.
“While these estimates are conservative, a true COVID death toll in Tibet cannot be determined without genuine transparency from the Chinese government,” the group said.
The Chinese government dropped its restrictive zero-COVID policy in early December following mass protests against lockdowns. Later that month, government health officials announced that they would stop issuing daily COVID data, though the number of confirmed coronavirus cases surged following the easing of restrictions.
The rights group says its report is the first known attempt to estimate the number of possible deaths in Tibet, where the death toll from the virus climbed after lockdowns were ended by authorities. Many of those who have died have been elderly Tibetans or people with underlying health issues, RFA reported earlier this month.
“The abrupt end of the zero-COVID policy has had disastrous effects in Tibet, but China’s lack of transparency and access, as well as its discriminatory treatment of Tibetans, have made it difficult to estimate the full extent of the horrors there,” the group said.
“Tibetans are living a nightmare and facing an unimaginable death toll. The Chinese government’s mismanagement of this crisis is endangering lives not only in Tibet, but in China and the entire world,” it said.
According to China’s 2020 census data, there are nearly 693,000 Tibetans age 60 and older living in the autonomous region, including about 82,700 who are 80 and above.
International Campaign for Tibet said it used this data as a baseline to arrive at its estimates through reasoning, logical deduction and extrapolations from available analytical studies.
The group also based its projection on findings from a study in Japan and acknowledgement by China’s National Health Commission indicating that the fatality risk from COVID was highest for people 80 and older. Studies in Brazil have shown that the effectiveness of two doses of Chinese COVID vaccines have been very low for those in that age group.
Older Tibetans were excluded from a third-dose vaccination campaign that began in 2022, sources told the group.
A large number of deaths from COVID also have been reported in Tibetan areas outside the officially designated Tibet Autonomous Region, which spans only about half of Tibet, according to the group.
Edited by Malcolm Foster.