Turning in a blind panic

Beijing was forced to abandon its draconian zero-covid policy by mass protests, writes Eddie Ford. But now the pandemic is raging through the country due to an inadequate vaccination programme and an overwhelmed health service

The authorities in China have gone full circle. After the initial outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, there was a disastrous period of denial and bureaucratic incompetence - allowing the virus to spread not just throughout the country, but the entire world. In turn, this led to disingenuous accusations from the likes of Donald Trump that Covid-19 was the “Chinese virus”.

However, Beijing got its act together and imposed severe lockdowns, successfully blocking the virus. Thanks to this zero-Covid strategy, millions of lives were saved - a stark contrast to the ‘civilised’ west where the virus ripped mercilessly through the defenceless population. As of January 3 this year, the official death rate per million in China is three (though in reality it might be higher, due to different counting methods and/or deliberate misinformation). In the UK, it is 3,158 - which can only be a criminal indictment of the British state1. As for the United States, it is now ahead of Britain: there have been 100,759,251 confirmed Covid cases, and 1,092,679 deaths - a death rate of 3,230 per million. Far from being Trump’s “Chinese virus”, Covid-19 is more of an American or British virus now.

On December 7, after a series of mass protests across the country against the restrictions and lockdowns - which a fatigued people were finding increasingly insufferable - the authorities in Beijing blinked and did a dramatic U-turn, abandoning its draconian policy overnight. People with mild or no symptoms can now isolate at home rather than in grim state-run quarantine facilities, many of which were reported to have poor living conditions, a deeply unpopular policy that separated families. Online videos showed guards dragging people out of their homes if they refused to go. They also no longer need to show tests for most venues and are allowed to travel more freely inside the country. Lateral flow tests have replaced PCR tests in most scenarios where a result is needed. Schools can remain open with student attendance if there is no wider campus outbreak. After a situation in which cities in China have endured months-long lockdowns even with only a handful of cases, areas identified as “high-risk” can come out of lockdown after five days if no new cases are found.

The new guidelines include a strict ban on blocking fire exits and doors, following reports of people being locked into their homes during an earthquake, and buildings being sealed under lockdown measures. Indeed, the protests last year appeared to have been triggered by a deadly fire in the western Xinjiang region - people claiming that the lockdown measures had prevented victims from escaping the building and firefighters from quickly reaching the scene.

With its new approach, however, Beijing has returned to a state of denial. Only weeks before, the Chinese people were told that covid is a menace to be avoided at almost any cost, justifying the lockdowns and the shared experience of misery for millions. Now they are being asked to believe that the coronavirus is no worse than the common cold! That is, the restrictions can be eased because Omicron is less dangerous than the Delta variant, which had been most common before. Recent data from Chinese researchers and officials uploaded to Gisaid, a global online database that allows scientists to track mutations of the virus, shows that the primary Omicron sub-variants spreading in China are similar to those that have already been identified in Europe and North America - where they mostly outcompeted more virulent strains.

China’s Fox News

Hence in his new year address, amidst the chaos of China’s sudden lockdown exit, president Xi said the country had entered a “new phase” in its approach to the pandemic - time to move on after a job well done. Sun Chunlan, vice-premier and covid chief, announced that the country’s health system had “withstood the test” of the pandemic and China was in a “new situation”. Apparently, the reversal in strategy was a rational and science-based decision. Slipping into an alternative universe, the state-directed tabloid, Global Times - commonly dubbed China’s Fox News - informed its readers: “The changing virus variant, accelerated mass vaccination and enhanced medical resources all laid out the foundation for a long planned and orderly covid response adjustment”.

If you believe that, you will believe anything. Tragically, China did not use the time bought by the initial zero-Covid success to import more effective foreign vaccines or to lift the vaccination booster rate among the elderly. It was always obvious that lockdowns could only be a temporary fix once the virus had escaped the confines of Wuhan and spread throughout the world. You could never isolate or hermetically seal China, given that it is the workshop of the world with millions of international flights. Like with Omicron, which seems to have originated in South Africa, the virus will always get through, no matter what checks you put in place.

Even though leftwing Sinophiles like the Morning Star and Socialist Action would vigorously deny it, viewing such a comment as blasphemy, China has displayed a woeful lack of preparation - not making even the most elementary planning for what to do when it lifted most of the restrictions in a poorly vaccinated population. Instead, it reacted in a blind panic to what it regarded as a serious challenge to its political authority by making concessions to the masses, regardless of the consequences for public health. Of course, according to the fairy tales in the Star, China is coping admirably by “setting up more intensive care facilities”, “trying to strengthen hospitals”, “increasing drug supplies”, etc - merely mentioning in passing, without explanation, that Beijing was “abruptly easing restrictions”. Maybe something to do with mass protests against oppressive lockdowns, comrades?

Anyway, the very big problem facing the party leadership is whether it can limit case numbers and deaths. China is an ageing country, with vaccination and booster rates lagging far behind what is needed to limit severe illness. China’s healthcare system is weak and patchy - after all, while the country has the world’s second biggest economy, when it comes to per-capita production it is nothing more than a middle ranker. Yes, Omicron has proved less fatal as it spread across countries such as Britain, but by the time it had become the dominant variant, about 95% of the UK population had some form of antibodies from vaccines or previous infections. But in China only 40% of people over 80 have been given their booster shots. Needless to say, almost all of those vaccinated will have got the domestically developed vaccines, which are less effective and long-lasting than the western ones. By all accounts, the current wave of infections has overwhelmed hospitals and intensive care units in many cities - online videos show distressing images of body bags stacked in hospital corridors, patients on intravenous drips by the roadside and hearses queueing, like NHS ambulances, outside crematoriums. But it is expected that a second, bigger wave will race through rural areas when millions of city workers head home in late January for the lunar new year holidays, bringing the virus with them into areas that have fewer hospitals and clinics, fewer doctors and nurses, less equipment and medicine, and generally less money to pay for treatment (healthcare is not free in China, though extremely inexpensive compared to somewhere like the US, where you often have a ‘choice’ between bankruptcy or death).

According to the health analytics company Airfinity, about 9,000 people a day are dying from covid in China - which could rise next month to as many as 25,000 a day, forecasting a death toll by April of up to 1.7 million people. Another study suggests that 2.1 million lives could be at risk based on models of an outbreak last year in Hong Kong, which also has an elderly population and a low vaccination take-up. If true, this is still way behind the US rate, of course, but an enormous increase in such a short space of time - representing a monumental failure by the Chinese bureaucratic elite.

Entry tests

Meanwhile, as China opens up its borders, Rishi Sunak performed a U-turn of his own and announced that Covid checks would be imposed on Chinese travellers, despite the fact that it is unlikely that any public health benefits would be gained from the measure.

Therefore Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer we all remember - fondly or not - from the sometimes excruciating Downing Street briefings with Boris Johnson, told health secretary Stephen Barclay that there was no evidence tests on travellers would have any effect. Various health experts have pointed out that point-of-entry and point-of-exit screening for serious infections have been shown on many occasions to be ineffective at controlling diseases - studies indicating that about 60% of cases are missed this way. Others dismissed the idea that airport tests are needed to track new covid variants. Yet the British authorities do not seem remotely worried about it, preferring to concentrate upon hypothetical variants emerging from China. Similarly, the British Medical Association has argued that the next variant was “just as likely to be homegrown as imported”.

In other words, as scientists are implicitly saying, Sunak’s decision was a political stunt - nothing to do with health or stopping the transmission of the virus. Britain already has a very high rate of infected people thanks to serial government incompetence, always doing too little too late, or nothing at all. The prime minister clearly thinks it is more important for Britain to align itself with those nations that have already imposed entry tests as it fits easily with America’s anti-China pushback against its only potential challenger.


  1. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COVID-19_pandemic_death_rates_by_country#cite_note-17.↩︎