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COVID in China: A Tale in 10 Headlines

— December 19, 2022

Reports of COVID in China are sounding eerily reminiscent of our collective 2020 nightmare.

The virus may have originally emerged in Wuhan, but the story of COVID in China has leveled up in the last few weeks. It’s a narrative that is all too familiar on this side of the Pacific, like watching a re-run of a horror movie where you try to tell the teenager not to go out alone, but they do anyway (of course they do) and you know something’s going to get them but you scream anyway when the blade comes out of the dark. Here it comes, a tale in ten headlines.

March 30, 2022: Workers live in factories…
COVID in China meant tough restrictions on travel and even a worker’s ability to go home each day. In Shenzhen, workers were obliged to live at their workplaces, where they were provided with electricity, water and internet, but had to buy their own food somehow, perhaps relying on their families for money. They slept in tents or on layers of cardboard, and delivery drivers slept in their vehicles. Such extreme lockdown conditions were never going to be popular.

November 28: A Protest? A Vigil? In Beijing, Anxious Crowds Are Unsure How Far to Go
Protesting restrictions due to COVID in China is risky business in such a repressive political environment. That freeze, however, was thawing. In Beijing, it started slowly, a small crowd gathering for a vigil, but within hours, they were marching through the fancier parts of town, shouting, “We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom!” Some carried blank protest signs, a reference to frequent and official censorship. Uncertainty about what was possible yielded to solidarity in the night, as the familiar police crackdowns failed to materialize.

December 7: China eases restrictions in major move away from ‘zero-Covid’ after protests
Although some restrictions had been strategically lessened in November, protests flared across the country when people were unwilling to live in such severe lockdown conditions, prompting further easing of policy. People with mild or asymptomatic COVID in China would be able to isolate at home instead of having to go to quarantine centers. Testing requirements for public places would be dropped. Negative test results would no longer be required to travel between provinces, visit shopping malls or ride public transportation.

December 13: China’s New Covid Approach Is to ‘Let it Rip…’
In a surprisingly rapid reversal of policy, President Xi Jinping appears to have made a strategic decision to follow the West’s trajectory, hoping that “mild” strains of COVID currently circulating wouldn’t strain the country’s underfunded health system or aging population too badly. Zero-COVID policy worked in Wuhan, but became impossible to maintain with massive public protests and a more contagious virus. However, easing restrictions among a minimally-vaccinated population just before the Lunar New Year in January means that the situation was poised to explode.

December 14: WHO predicts ‘very difficult’ time…
Hospitalizations and cases had been trending downward, with only 50 serious cases in Beijing hospitals, mostly people with underlying health conditions. Under the previous zero-COVID policy, only 5235 deaths had been reported since the pandemic began, with no deaths since December 3, an amazing feat for a country with 1.4 billion people. Without regular and thorough testing and reporting, however, there will be no comprehensive way to monitor COVID in China going forward.

A map of China, outlined in white on a black background, with red dots of varying size concentrated in the Eastern side of the country.
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.

December 15: 800 million could be infected…
Chinese public health officials are expecting the largest single outbreak since the pandemic began, with 800,000,000 Chinese people, or 10% of the world’s population, to become infected in the next 90 days. Beijing and other cities are already experiencing a surge of cases, where it’s spreading faster than it has anywhere else in the world since the pandemic began. China National Health Commission scientists estimate that every person with COVID is infecting 16 others.

December 15: China’s covid wave could kill as many as 1.5m people
Before reopening, other countries rolled out vaccines and boosters, shored up their healthcare systems and amassed piles of antiviral medications, but China, not so much. China did develop a vaccine, but shunned more effective versions from western countries. Although individuals have started taking more precautions, like working from home or masking in public, a worst-case scenario could see a COVID wave leaving a million and a half dead.

December 15: China’s care homes rush to protect elderly…
With the renewed surge of COVID in China, nursing homes and elder care centers are adopting the same practices that factory workers once had to endure. Nobody can enter or leave, and care workers must live onsite. Other countries prioritized vaccinating their most senior citizens, but in China, shots are optional (to avoid the social backlash of disrespecting the elderly) and many older adults are reluctant. As the wider society reopens, those who are particularly vulnerable find their world closing in.

December 16: Why people in China are panic buying canned yellow peaches as Covid surges
Amid an unprecedented COVID outbreak, and against the urging of government and manufacturing firms, people are stockpiling cold and flu medicine (which became available for purchase without identification when restrictions eased in November), test kits (where available) and canned peaches, which are perceived as particularly nutritious. Stock prices for Chinese pharmaceutical companies are soaring amid drug shortages and panic buying.

December 16: Beijing crematoriums strain under China Covid wave
Two funeral homes in Beijing report being open 24 hours a day, with same-day cremations available to fill the massive demand for funeral services. Another has a weeklong waiting list. Crematorium employees are falling ill with COVID themselves, increasing the post-death bottleneck in ways reminiscent of earlier outbreaks in European and North American cities.

Well, that escalated quickly, didn’t it?

Correlation is not causation, but as we watch the spread of COVID in China, anticipating the same old plot, perhaps with new variants that international travel and globalization will bring to our front doors yet again, it’s worth thinking about other ways this could have gone. Not every country experienced pandemic outcomes as poor as the United States or China. By observing what some did right, such as Vietnam’s mobilization of the military to deliver food to a country in quarantine, or New Zealand’s initial concentration on border management, contact tracing, and vaccination, while including Indigenous Māori populations and varying political factions in the implementation of public health policy, we can perhaps learn how to handle future pandemics and epidemics better. Because there will be more, and “freedom” is more relevant when you’re still alive to enjoy it.

If we learn nothing from the COVID pandemic, then each premature death, every person disabled for life, all the children who lost their parents, will have suffered in vain. I want to believe that we’re better than that. Don’t you?

Related: Self-Reliance: A Positive COVID Result


Workers live in factories, food delivery drivers sleep outside, and medical staff die from overwork in Covid-19 wave
A Protest? A Vigil? In Beijing, Anxious Crowds Are Unsure How Far to Go.
China eases restrictions in major move away from ‘zero-Covid’ after protests
China’s New Covid Approach Is to ‘Let it Rip,’ Analyst Says
WHO predicts ‘very difficult’ time as China sees sharp increase in Covid cases, hospitalisations
COVID spreading faster than ever in China. 800 million could be infected this winter
China’s covid wave could kill as many as 1.5m people
China’s care homes rush to protect elderly from Covid-19 surge
Why people in China are panic buying canned yellow peaches as Covid surges
Beijing crematoriums strain under China Covid wave
Vietnam calls on army for food delivery ahead of lockdown
New Zealand’s Covid strategy was one of the world’s most successful – what can we learn from it?
China’s COVID spike not due to lifting of restrictions, WHO director says

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