At this time in 2019, China was struggling to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus from Wuhuan, where it started, to the rest of the world. Three years later, when most countries seem to have learnt how to live with the virus, China is just getting started. As of Thursday, the number of Covid cases in China appears to be on the high side, with hospitals filled up and crematoriums left without spaces.
Following the rare protest demanding an end to the Zero-Covid policy in China, the government had been forced to end its strict regulations, allowing citizens some freedom. The result of the government’s unpreparedness to end the zero-covid policy was exposed after several thousand citizens caught the virus. Officials fear that up to a million people could catch the virus in the coming days.
“We must be mentally prepared that infection is inevitable,” Zhang Wenhong, director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, said on Thursday, adding that the infection rate will reach its peak in a week.
“The peak infection will also increase the rate of severe disease, which will have a certain impact on our entire medical resources,” Zhang continued, adding that the virus might not go away soon.
While most of the world has agreed that the situation in China is worrisome, the Chinese government doesn’t seem so. Instead, in the last few days, very few Covid cases have been reported alongside zero deaths. However, there are arguments that the cases of Covid in China daily could be up to a million while the death toll could be up to five thousand every day.
Many have attributed the poor counting of Covid cases in China to new adjustments in the process of deciding who and who died of Covid.
A questionable new method of counting Covid 19 deaths
Following the sharp increase in the number of Covid-19 cases, the Chinese health ministry has adjusted how Covid-related deaths are counted. The new method, announced on Tuesday, will exclude patients that died of Covid but have underlying ailments. Only patients that died of respiratory failure because of the virus will be counted.
“At present after being infected with the omicron variant, the main cause of death remains underlying diseases. Old people have other underlying conditions, and only a very small number die directly of respiratory failure caused by infection with COVID,” Wang Guiqiang, the head of infectious disease at Peking University, said Tuesday.
With the adjustment, how covid-related deaths are counted in China is now different from most parts of the world. The low death toll in China was attributed to the zero-covid policy, but many have now come out to question the figure China has been releasing since the virus started in late 2019.
WHO emergencies Chief Michael Ryan, said: “People who die of Covid die from many different (organ) systems’ failures, given the severity of infection. So limiting a diagnosis of death from Covid to someone with a Covid positive test and respiratory failure will very much underestimate the true death toll associated with Covid.”
While Covid deaths stand at 5,241 according to China’s official figure, the World Health Organization’s figure is 31,509, which is a sharp contrast. Many believe the change in the counting process was politically motivated, hence the official count cannot be trusted.
“The new definition is a reversal of the international norm adopted since mid-April during the Shanghai outbreak, which counts a covid death as anyone who died with COVID. It is hard to say this is not politically driven,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.
Why a sudden surge among a vaccinated population?
What many people had found difficult to comprehend is how the virus managed to spread massively in China, which many believed should be the most prepared country for an outbreak. Various factors contributed to why China has become the topic of discussion again after the virus first broke out in 2019.
Research conducted by Airfinity showed that the rate of vaccination, lack of natural immunity, and the zero covid policy are responsible for the sharp increase in covid cases and covid-related deaths.
China relied mostly on vaccines that were made domestically. Most of these vaccines, though temporarily effective, might have lost ground, thereby making the vaccinated population lose immunity.
“Mainland China has very low levels of immunity across its population,” the findings showed. “Its citizens were vaccinated with domestically produced jabs Sinovac and Sinopharm which have been proven to have significantly lower efficacy and provide less protection against infection and death.”
“This vaccine-induced immunity has waned over time and with low booster uptake and no natural infections, the population is more susceptible to severe disease,” it added.
Following the recent outbreak, the German government has sent vaccines to its citizens in China. The vaccines have arrived at the German embassy and will be distributed in the coming days. The initiative has also raised more concerns about the effectiveness of Chinese-made vaccines.
The Zero-Covid policy
Airfinity in the same study said the Chinese population, being restricted so much, has only a few percentages of people that had previously contracted the virus. The implication is that most people had not acquired natural immunity from the virus.
“China’s zero-COVID strategy also means the population has almost no naturally acquired immunity through the previous infection,” the findings continued.
The situation raised the fear that with China’s population, between 167 and 279 million people could contract the virus, “which could lead to between 1.3 and 2.1 million deaths.”
Learning to live with the virus
The Coronavirus has lasted in China more than in any country in the world. Despite that, it appears that the people of China have not learnt how to live with the virus because of how restrictive the government was.
With the ease of restrictions, citizens, including those that recently contracted the virus are now learning to live with the virus. After all, it has always been a question of when because the zero covid policy would not have continued forever.
“When I think of this situation my feeling is just, wow, we are so lucky because now we can isolate at home,” Yang Zengdong, a Chinese teacher that recently contracted the virus, said.
She said if it had happened during the zero-covid policy, positive cases would have been quarantined in the government’s facilities and the entire building locked down.
“This wave is something we have to face because it is impossible to stay closed forever,” she added.
The World Health Organization is concerned about the growing cases of Covid in China and is more worried about the suspected cover-up of cases and deaths. The fear of a new variant has increased, and more countries, especially neighbours of China, are worried that with China’s population a spread across borders is inevitable. However, a lot depends on how Xi Jinping and his men handle the situation.