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8 December 2022

China is lifting “zero Covid” controls. What happens next could be devastating

The Chinese government has had almost three years to prepare for the end of its strict rules. It has failed to do so.

By Katie Stallard

In Beijing the ubiquitous Covid-19 testing booths that had become the backdrop to daily life are being loaded onto the back of trucks and driven away. Across China the use of QR codes on mobile phones – known as health codes – to control access to most public places has been scrapped. People infected with the virus whose symptoms are mild will now be allowed to quarantine at home, rather than being sent to a central facility. After almost three years of urging strict adherence to the country’s “zero Covid” policy, which aimed to keep cases as close to zero as possible, the new guidelines announced by Chinese officials on 7 December represent a significant shift.

The language the authorities are using to describe the virus has also undergone a marked change. Whereas state media outlets had previously emphasised the severity of the illness and the number of deaths in countries such as the US, they have instead begun to highlight the milder symptoms that are typically associated with the Omicron variant. “In the past three years, the virus has weakened, and we have become stronger,” explained the state news agency Xinhua on 7 December. This echoed comments by Sun Chunlan, the Chinese vice-premier tasked with leading the response to the pandemic, who said on 30 November that the toxicity of the virus was decreasing, and the country had entered a “new stage” of its battle against the virus.

It is tempting to see this as a victory for people power and the extraordinary wave of protests against lockdown measures last month, beginning with workers at an iPhone factory in Zhengzhou, in the central east, and culminating in street protests in multiple cities after a deadly fire in Urumqi on 24 November. Announcing the new rules, Li Bin, the deputy director of the national health commission, acknowledged the “strong reaction” by the public to earlier failures to “optimise” the country’s pandemic controls.

Yet this is only part of the story. The upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have undoubtedly been weighing for some time how to move away from the mass lockdowns and strict controls that have tanked the country’s economic growth and seen youth unemployment hit almost 20 per cent, while avoiding the public health disaster that it has been widely predicted would follow an abrupt shift away from the policy. On 10 November Xi Jinping, the president, chaired a meeting of senior officials to discuss how to contain the spread of the virus while minimising the “impact on economic and social development”. He admitted during a meeting with Charles Michel, president of the European Council, on 1 December that Chinese citizens were frustrated after living with pandemic control measures for nearly three years. Despite those restrictions, case numbers were surging, hitting a record high in November, with grim predictions for the winter months ahead.

Confronted with a dire economic outlook and undeniable public anger, Xi appears to have decided that it was time to change course. Or perhaps he has simply accelerated existing plans to open up and jump-start the economy. Despite having had several years to prepare for this moment, however, the Chinese government has failed to do so. While massive resources have been pumped into building the country’s testing infrastructure and quarantine centres, close to a third of elderly citizens, who are most vulnerable to the virus, have not been fully vaccinated. Only around 40 per cent of people over 80 have received the three doses of the Chinese-made vaccines that they need to be protected against serious illness. (China has not approved foreign mRNA vaccines for use.) The lockdowns and extensive containment measures could have been used to buy time to get the older population vaccinated, stockpile therapeutic treatments, and invest in critical care capacity in hospitals. Inexplicably, they were not.

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[See also: What do China’s lockdown protests mean for Xi Jinping?]

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Instead, public health experts have warned that the country’s limited hospital capacity could be quickly overwhelmed by a surge of cases, particularly when combined with the annual flu season and the cold winter months when people tend to socialise indoors. China is also preparing for the Lunar New Year holiday in January, when families across the country gather and migrant workers in the major cities typically return to their hometowns and villages. According to the transport ministry 1.2 billion trips were made in 2021. Given these factors, and assuming that China experiences a rate of infection comparable with that in the US and Europe, Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, has calculated that the country could see around 620,000 deaths within the next six months. There are already reports of pharmacies in Beijing running out of fever-reducing medication such as ibuprofen and designated fever clinics filling up.

Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, Xi has sought to present the fight against the virus as a “people’s war”, which China is winning, with him as the commander in chief. During the first year, when western countries were experiencing their own catastrophic surges, he handed out medals to health officials and praised China’s “heroic feat in humankind’s fight against disease” and “great spirit of battling Covid-19”. It is now clear that those celebrations were premature, and the country’s most serious challenge is still ahead.

[See also: How Xi Jinping views the world]

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