How China Dismantled 3 Years of COVID Policy in Just 1 Month


China has dismantled its pandemic measures in just one month after maintaining the world’s strictest virus controls for three years, two of which were under President Xi Jinping‘s signature zero-COVID policy.

Beijing’s swift and abrupt exit from zero-COVID began on December 7, when the country scrapped lockdowns, mass testing and centralized quarantine despite an uptick in cases, following unprecedented anti-government protests against the unyielding strictures and their impact on the economy.

Late on Monday, China’s National Health Commission announced plans to remove the final piece of the country’s pandemic policy when it redesignated the novel coronavirus from “pneumonia” to an “infection.” It was a change that reflected the dominant Omicron strain’s decreased likelihood to cause severe lower respiratory tract infection, the NHC said.

Starting on January 8, COVID will also be downgraded from a Class A to a Class B infectious disease, the department said, paving the way to an end all quarantine requirements nationwide, including for inbound travelers, although preflight PCR tests will still apply. The tweak further justifies China‘s decision to stop contact tracing and the release of relevant statistics as required by the country’s public health laws governing viruses such as Ebola.

Above, patients suffering from COVID-19 receive treatment at Tianjin Nankai Hospital on December 28, 2022, in Tianjin, China. Cities across China have struggled with surging infections, a resulting shortage of pharmaceuticals and overflowing hospital wards and crematoriums after Beijing suddenly dismantled its zero-COVID lockdown and testing regime.
NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

Separately, the NHC said it would stop publishing daily infection numbers and would instead delegate the task to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, also known as China CDC, according to a notice on Christmas day. But the new disclosure policy hasn’t followed a meaningful change on the ground.

China’s first real COVID wave is still seeing skyrocketing infections across the country. The public, which has been left largely in the dark with no recourse to official data, is relying on anecdotal evidence on social media and the foreign press to gauge the situation in the country.

Before the NHC stopped releasing its daily infection tally, it had already come under intense scrutiny from the Chinese public over the accuracy of its statistics, especially after China’s mass testing infrastructure was dismantled.

Leaked minutes from a December 21 health briefing by Sun Yang, the No. 2 at China CDC, included an estimate that 248 million people—nearly 18 percent of the population—had been infected in the first 20 days of the month, including some 37 million people on December 20 alone.

Newsweek could not verify the numbers, which Chinese sources confirmed to Bloomberg and the Financial Times. The NHC officially reported a combined 62,592 symptomatic cases over the same period.

The authenticity of the estimates were strengthened by independent disclosures by health officials in eastern China last week. In Zhejiang, a province of 64 million people, deputy health chief Yu Xinle said Sunday the region was experiencing 1 million infections a day, before predicting a likely peak of 2 million on New Year’s Day.

In Qingdao, a city of 10 million in Shandong province, top health official Bo Tao put new daily cases at roughly 500,000 as of last Friday.

There’s even greater uncertainty about the number of fatalities in the current outbreak. New guidance issued by China’s national health authority this month narrowed the definition of COVID deaths to exclude those who die with underlying conditions, restricting measures still used by other countries to count deaths by the virus.

China Dismantles COVID-19 Policy In One Month
Above, hearses wait to enter a crematorium in Beijing on December 22, 2022. Many crematoriums are overwhelmed in the wake of the Chinese government’s sudden decision to lift years of lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing.
STF/AFP via Getty Images

As of December 27, China’s pandemic death toll stood at 5,245, with its daily mortality rate increasing by low single digits. The official statistics appeared to contradict scenes at major hospitals in Beijing and Shanghai, where elderly patients were overwhelming local health care systems, and where funeral homes reported accepting dozens of corpses a day to be cremated.

Models of China’s present and coming COVID waves have predicted between 1 to 2 million deaths through the end of 2023 as Beijing presses ahead with a hasty return to normalcy. But it’s unclear whether the phenomenon would ever be reflected in the official numbers, especially in more rural parts of the country.

China’s censors have moved to block all criticism of the central government’s exit from zero-COVID, particular any commentary that suggests Beijing wasted precious time and money on virus restrictions when it should’ve been increasing the capacity of its health care system.

On Monday, WeChat censored an interview with Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, on the account Medical Community, which has published expert commentary on COVID.

Huang warned a desire to “reached the peak as soon as possible”—potentially infecting between 80 and 90 percent of the population in the next month, could cause unnecessary severe cases and deaths. He also questioned China’s decision to exit zero-COVID during the winter flu season, which typically adds pressure to health care systems, according to freewechat.com, a digital archive of content deleted from the social media app.

In a previous interview with Newsweek, Huang said China hadn’t made the necessary preparations to reopen this year: a renewed vaccine drive, increasing ICU surge capacity and stockpiling therapeutics.

NHC figures released in late November showed more than 90 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people were vaccinated with a full course—two doses—of a COVID vaccine. But among those aged 60 and above, an estimated 37 million hadn’t received a booster shot and 28 million were unvaccinated. Among those over 80, only around 40 percent have accepted boosters, the data showed.

Wang Wenbin, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, criticized what he said was politically motivated Western media bias “intended to smear China” and its COVID response. He denied Beijing was unprepared for the nationwide wave of infections.

“Countries adjusting the COVID policy would invariably go through a period of adaptation. China is no exception as we shift gear in our COVID policy,” he said. “China’s COVID situation on the whole remains predictable and under control.”

Weibo, another widely used social media website, censored critical comments under state media posts about Wang’s remarks.

Do you have a tip on a world news story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about China’s COVID-19 policy? Let us know via worldnews@newsweek.com.



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