The latest wave of COVID-19 infections in China continues to rise in major cities across the country, with the National Health Commission (NHC) reporting a near-record total of 2,095 new cases on Sunday, raising the seven-day average of new daily cases to 23,056. Also over the weekend, health authorities in Beijing reported three official deaths from COVID-19, including a 91-year-old woman and an 88-year-old man, the first deaths in China since May 26.
So far, the ever-increasing rise produced a limited response from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government, affirming the assessment of the World Socialist Web Site that the CCP has begun to move away from the Zero-COVID elimination strategy, which had been in place since the start of the pandemic. The CCP may well reinstate Zero-COVID as the crisis deepens, but at this point there has been no sign of a reversal as infections rise.
On November 11, the NHC published 20 changes to the ‘dynamic zero’ policy, all of which reduce the measures needed to stop the viral transmission of COVID-19. These include reductions in mass testing, contact tracing, quarantine and isolation protocols, and above all, limiting city-wide lockdowns that have proven to be the most effective measure to rapidly suppress transmission.
The NHC is framing the 20 changes with the intention of solving ‘one-size-fits-all and overfocus problems’, but it is now clear that they represent the start of a move away from zero COVID policy. The implications of this change are becoming more apparent as the current surge progresses.
China’s capital Beijing, home to 21.5 million people, is now experiencing its worst outbreak of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, with a record 962 cases detected on Sunday. Rather than implement a mandatory citywide lockdown, local authorities have responded by requesting that residents voluntarily stay home, without providing any financial assistance to workers who cannot afford it. While many residents are following this recommendation and some schools have voluntarily switched to remote learning, businesses across the city remain open.
In nearby Shijiazhuang, a city of 11 million people, cases have been rising steadily, with 641 reported on Sunday. In response, local authorities refrained from issuing a lockdown, instead announcing on Sunday that mass testing will take place in six of the city’s eight districts over the next five days. They also encouraged residents to shop online and ordered some schools to switch to remote learning.
About a third of all new infections in China are taking place in Guangdong province, which now has a seven-day average of 8,706 new cases daily, with the majority taking place in the provincial capital Guangzhou, home to nearly 19 million people. people. Instead of implementing a total lockdown of the city, since November 5 local authorities have implemented partial lockdowns of different districts of the city. On Monday, a five-day lockdown began in Baiyun, Guangzhou’s most populous district, while dinning services, nightclubs and cinemas in the city’s main business district were ordered temporarily closed.
The experience of last spring’s ascent in Shanghai is worth reviewing to recognize the changes taking place in China today.
On March 28, 2022, the seven-day average of daily new cases in Shanghai was 3,662. After Shanghai officials repeatedly declared that they would not implement a city-wide lockdown, the national authorities finally stepped in and demanded that they do so. Almost exactly two months later, the city finally came out of lockdown, with more than 380,000 total infections and 337 deaths.
The experience in Shanghai underscored the need to expand the Zero-COVID strategy in response to the highly infectious Omicron variant. Across the country, authorities should have been advised to implement city-wide lockdowns more promptly, as soon as cases start to rise, in order to rapidly contain serious outbreaks. They should have made sure every resident is provided with N95 or better masks, revamped the infrastructure in all public spaces to limit airborne transmission, fully funded each city to maintain mass testing, and other necessary public health measures.
Instead, five months later, the opposite path is being taken. The refusal to implement a city-wide lockdown in Guangzhou is particularly telling. Currently, the seven-day average of daily new cases in Guangzhou is 138 percent higher than this figure in Shanghai on March 28, when a lockdown was finally implemented.
To be sure, the CCP faces immense economic pressures from global finance capital, which for more than two years has demanded the lifting of zero COVID in order to maximize production and the exploitation of the Chinese working class. The late lockdown in Shanghai was very costly, and in recent months, many cities have racked up substantial bills for massive tests that must be paid to testing companies.
Additionally, many companies have signaled that they intend to cut production from China as long as COVID zero remains in place, most notably Apple. Following the announcement of the 20 measures, stocks rose and foreign investors celebrated. On Monday, however, the Shanghai Composite Index fell 0.8 percent as several Chinese consumer stocks fell amid the growing spread of COVID-19 and fears that remaining mitigation measures would continue to be too much. detrimental to production.
Speaking about the 20 measures, PineBridge Investments portfolio manager Hani Redha told the Wall Street Journal: “All eyes are on China. Any attempt to reopen is going to be tricky because we know the pattern with these things: there’s a spike in cases. We have not even started and there are already many cases’.
The Chinese ruling class is clearly caught in a dilemma, in which they are forced to fully reopen their economy knowing full well that the ensuing public health crisis could have disastrous economic ramifications.
While the CCP currently maintains the most robust mitigation program in the world, it will continue to face unrelenting pressure to lift all mitigations and adopt the “herd immunity” (herd) strategy from mass infections that now dominates globally.
If China finally abandons all measures against COVID-19, the results would be catastrophic. Current vaccination rates in China are not publicly available, but a recent article in the South China Morning Post noted that “as of mid-August, the booster vaccination rate among China’s elderly was around 68 percent,” without specifying the precise age range for “elderly.”
According to the latest available Statista data, as of March 17, only 51 percent of Chinese 80 and older had two doses of the vaccine, and only 20 percent had received a booster. Sure, rates have increased since then, but it is widely recognized that this older segment of the population remains the least vaccinated, due to more widespread beliefs in TCM. Significantly, there are 36 million people in this age group living in the country who now face tremendous risks due to the Zero-COVID lifting.
(Originally published in English on November 22, 2022)