Having suffered or criticized China’s draconian “dynamic-zero Covid” policy for three years, all countries and peoples, not least China’s own citizens, are thrown off guard by a wildfire of infections following Beijing’s dramatic U-turn, dropping virtually all restrictions at once.
According to a story from Japan’s Asahi Shimbun published on December 26, 2022, half of China’s 1.4 billion people will contract the coronavirus in the near future.
Images of crammed hospital rooms, crowded morgues, and barren pharmacy shelves frequently appear in news headlines, depicting panic and mayhem. The decision to redefine Covid deaths and to discontinue reporting on infections does not inspire confidence.
If preventive limitations are not reinstated, a million people could perish in China due to the abrupt Covid spike, according to Nature, a prominent science journal. Because of China’s enormous population, there are worries that a new Covid-variant will appear. China is being urged by the World Health Organization to share the most recent real-time data frequently.
While welcoming returning Chinese tourists with deep pockets, many countries are imposing internationally-recognized non-infection proof before entry.
Meanwhile, anti-China media is having a field day. Talks of collapse come fast and loose of President Xi Jinping’s credibility and the China Dream quest for a national renaissance. How much of this is valid? How will all this pan out?
First, the concept of “dynamic zero” and its degree of achievement have been misunderstood and inaccurately represented widely. Rather than insisting on zero cases in all circumstances, it’s a strategy to ensure the earliest possible detection, isolation, treatment, and cure.
The plan has been extremely effective in reducing mortality and halting the spread from one province to another. China’s Covid mortality rate per 100,000 people remains at the bottom of the list, at 1.2 persons, compared to 331.65 for the United States, 45.05 for Japan, and 38.46 for India, according to a John Hopkins University analysis revised on December 31, 2022.
China’s mortality rate will still be meager by international standards even if an additional million people die—0.07% of a population of 1.4 billion people.
A January 2022 poll by the independent consultant Edelman Faith Barometer, located in New York, found that Chinese residents’ trust in their government, including how it handled the pandemic, was at an all-time high of 91%, the most significant level in ten years.
In a way, China is a victim of its own success in shielding the vast majority of its population from the pandemic. As a result, natural “herd immunity” continues to be minimal. Only 76.6% of people aged 80 and older have had at least one shot, and only 40% have received a booster dosage, despite the fact that 90% of the population has received the first immunization dose.
Beijing is currently rushing to immunize 90% of people 80 and older by the end of January. It is also building a database of chronic disease sufferers so as to maximize the rate of successful outcomes.
As the annual Chinese New Year massive exodus to home villages looms, Beijing is ordering prefecture and township officials to urgently fortify pandemic defenses, including clinics, medicine, equipment, free “medicine kits”, public education, and coordinated official information against unfounded rumors.
Empty pharmacy shelves largely reflect public hysteria with sudden widespread infections amongst family members, friends, and colleagues. There is a mad rush to stock up on fever medicines like ibuprofen and paracetamol. Beijing is boosting up the production of these two drugs fourfold in a month, to 202 million tablets and 190 million tablets respectively.
With expert input, Beijing has come to the conclusion that, not unlike elsewhere in the world, the pandemic variants are morphing into an endemic with a much lower mortality rate, albeit a much higher contagion rate. The vast majority of infections get well after a week or so. Initial paranoia is now petering out.
Recent protests show that after three years of lockdown and while the virus has been successfully contained, people’s patience has run out. Moreover, the economy has suffered a gigantic hit. With the 20th Party Congress settled, it’s high time to recharge towards realizing China’s centenary goal of becoming a rich and advanced socialist nation by mid-century, including “common prosperity”.
By 2035, the middle class is expected to have doubled to 800 million people. Many are well-off enough for overseas travel. Borders are set to fully open this month to allow a two-way flow of Chinese travelers, foreign visitors and university students. The next couple of months is likely to be crucial as more infected persons build up herd immunity. As President Xi implied in his televised New Year Speech, I completely agree that there is light at the end of the tunnel given Beijing’s track record of significant human and resource mobilization.
Andrew K P Leung, SBS, FRSA, International and Independent China Strategist based in Hong Kong with many decades of senior government experience interfacing with Mainland China.