Protests against China’s strict zero-Covid restrictions and tight lockdowns erupted in cities across the country this week as official infections rose to record levels – the accuracy of government figures is questionable and cases are likely much higher – figures that one the United States would mark ‘the very best weeks of the pandemic, but one that poses a major challenge to Beijing as it relentlessly pursues an increasingly unsustainable zero-Covid policy.
China has reported 5,233 Covid deaths and around 1.6 million confirmed infections since the pandemic began, according to government data compiled by Our World In Data, registering more than 40,000 new cases in a single day for the first time, a likely underestimate based on potentially inaccurate government reporting.
If the US were to report similar numbers every day for a week, it would be one of the country’s best weeks of the entire pandemic, as the country reports more than 280,000 cases (an average of 40,000 per day) in 105 weeks out of 149, the CDC provides data available for.
For the world’s most populous country with more than 1.4 billion people, around 18% of the human population, China’s numbers represent a disproportionately tiny fraction of the world total, accounting for less than 0.1% of Covid deaths and about 0.25 % of confirmed cases.
China, known for locking down entire cities after finding a handful of cases, has recorded fewer infections than many places a fraction of its size, including New Zealand, Ireland, Georgia, Jordan, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and that on seven separate occasions the US has reported more cases in China in the space of a week.
In contrast, this November nearly twice as many died in the US – which accounts for 4% of the world’s population but accounts for around 16% of recorded global Covid deaths – and the majority of states have individually reported more Covid deaths than all of China.
Within weeks of the virus’ arrival, the US had already sped past China’s current death toll, and on 79 separate occasions the country has reported more Covid deaths in a week than China has since the pandemic began, according to CDC data. often exceeded many times over.
China’s reported per capita death rate – 3.67 deaths per 1 million people – is the lowest of any country in the world, bar a handful of exceptions. These include Turkmenistan, which still doubtfully claims not to have been visited by the virus, North Korea, which has limited testing capacity and tends to spread inaccurate information that cannot be independently verified, Burundi, which has very limited testing capacity , and a handful of very small states like the Vatican and Tuvalu.
Protest waves spread across China this week as people took to the streets over Beijing’s tough Covid-19 restrictions. The demonstrations represent one of the largest demonstrations of civil unrest in mainland China in decades, and while protests against pandemic rules have not been particularly uncommon, it is exceptionally rare in China for the public to openly expose the communist government and President Xi Jinping opposed by scale. The unrest comes amid record-high Covid cases in China, which have surged to around 40,000 a day despite the tight restrictions that have managed to contain the virus for most of the pandemic. The death of 10 people in an apartment fire in the western city of Ürümqi last week – many claim Covid restrictions have prevented people from fleeing or help from arriving in time – is one of the main triggers for the recent unrest. Authorities deny the restrictions had anything to do with the deaths.
The protests are against China’s zero-Covid policy, the guiding principle for Beijing’s response to the pandemic, on which Xi has pledged a significant amount of political capital. Zero-Covid, better known as “Dynamic Zero Covid”, aims to eradicate the virus completely. China is the only major country still following this approach. Unlike most other countries’ guidelines, it doesn’t leave room for compromise or for learning to manage and live with the virus. Authorities have been relentless and unrelenting in pursuing Zero-Covid, locking down entire cities for a handful of cases and instituting widespread compulsory testing if any were found. There are reports of people being unable to leave their homes at all – even during earthquakes – being monitored by guards and drones, and reports of food shortages and people fleeing shops and factories to avoid being held inside. The accuracy and veracity of China’s Covid statistics have been repeatedly questioned during the pandemic and they likely hide the true impact of Covid. Beijing, for example, has gone months, even a year, without reporting a single death, and the country has an impossibly low number of deaths given the number of infections.
What to look out for
Officials have staunchly defended the zero-Covid strategy over the years, and no matter how untenable the policy becomes, China has no clear way out. Eradication is the only natural endpoint for zero-Covid, which most experts now believe is an unlikely or very distant prospect. Lifting or easing restrictions and learning to live with the virus would inevitably lead to the spread of the virus, and high levels of immunity among risk groups would be needed to prevent large-scale deaths. Unfortunately, China has not made good use of the time it has bought with strict lockdowns – designed as temporary public health measures to slow down while more permanent strategies such as vaccinations are implemented – and a large number of elderly people not vaccinated. China’s home-made vaccines are also of questionable quality, and its healthcare system would struggle with large outbreaks. However, in the wake of the protests, officers have started to show signs they may be rethinking their strategy and the language used by officers this week is noticeably softer than before.
Three years of Null-Covid has undoubtedly saved many lives, but given poor vaccination rates, lackluster vaccinations, low natural immunity to previous waves of infection, and rapidly spreading variants like Omicron, it will likely cost China dearly to abandon Null-Covid now. Allowing the virus to spread now, especially with lower immunity in at-risk groups like the elderly, could trigger a “tsunami” of cases that could overwhelm hospitals and kill more than 1 million people, experts warn. Research by health analytics firm Airfinity predicts up to 2.1 million people will die if the directive is lifted.
Inside China’s fight for the future of zero-COVID (Reuters)
China’s Zero Covid Strategy: What is it, why are people protesting and what’s next? (Forbes)