COVID is coming back in China, lockdowns are not

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In December, China abruptly abandoned its draconian “zero-COVID” policies, battered by a surge of infections and rising public anger against lockdowns. Half a year on, COVID-19 cases again are on the rise, but this time, the nation appears to be determined to press on with normal life as the government focuses on reigniting economic growth.

Although other countries have long settled into such a pattern, it is a shift for China. Until late last year, its national leadership was still ready to lock down whole neighbourhoods and districts, even cities, in a bid to stamp out what were sometimes just small clusters of cases.

People wearing face masks ride an escalator at a shopping and office complex in Beijing, Credit: AP

Chinese health authorities have reported a rise in COVID-19 cases since April, especially from newer subvariants that are spreading across the world. Zhong Nanshan, a prominent doctor who was among the first to openly confirm in early 2020 that COVID-19 could easily spread among people, estimated that by late June, as many as 65 million people a week could become infected with the coronavirus across China. (That would be up from what he estimated at 40 million infections a week in late May. China no longer publishes regular official nationwide estimates of infections.)

By comparison, after “zero-COVID” controls were set aside in December, new infections reached 37 million a day in China at their peak, according to estimates cited by Bloomberg.

Even if, as Zhong acknowledged, the pace of rising infections is laden with uncertainty, a rebound in cases was always likely, and many in China appear steeled to living with a background hum of COVID infections and sometimes COVID deaths.

“People have become used to infections, and they see this as normal in the post-COVID era,” Lin Zixian, 36, who works for a technology company in Beijing, said in a telephone interview. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, still often wears a medical mask when he meets people indoors. But Lin said that he and other members of his family had stopped masking in most public spaces, as have many people in China.

Commuters wearing face masks walk along a street in the central business district during the morning rush hour in Beijing, Credit: AP

“Many of my friends got infected last year and got infected again this year,” Lin said. “Personally, I’m pretty calm about the virus and pandemic.”

Officials across China appear to be trying to prepare the population for a rise in infections without reintroducing the heavy controls that by late last year had exhausted public patience. Since abandoning its tight restrictions on domestic travel, the government has shifted to reviving growth and job creation. The jobless rate of about 20 per cent among urban youth may appear more politically pressing than rising COVID numbers.

“After most people had caught the last wave, the intensity was gone,” said Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago who has been finishing a book on China’s handling of the pandemic.

He added that China now treated COVID-19 as a “Class B” illness — not the most urgent category — and officials, although monitoring the latest increase in cases, “have also been trying to reassure the public, saying that the symptoms are relatively mild.”

Health officials in Beijing have recommended wearing masks on buses and subways, but it is not mandatory, and quite a few passengers do not, especially younger ones. While the recent rise in cases may yet strain hospitals, many people appear more willing to endure the illness at home rather than heading to fever clinics.

“Even if my son got COVID, I wouldn’t mind staying in the same room with him,” said Lin, the technology worker.

For many younger patients, infection can mean a week or so with a fever and other symptoms. Over recent weeks, people have chronicled their symptoms on social media, often in a tone of mordant resignation.

More worrisome are older people, many of whom have not had COVID and who may not have received a full round of vaccination shots. Up to three-quarters of Chinese people infected in the recent rise were not infected in the first wave, Dr Zhang Wenhong, the director of the centre for infectious diseases at Huashan Hospital in Shanghai and a major voice in China’s response to COVID, said in a recent interview with Chinese media outlets.

Commuters wearing face masks make their way along a street in the central business district during the morning rush hour in Beijing, Credit: AP

Nonetheless, the resurgence in cases “should not have a huge impact overall on economic activity and life,” Zhang said, according to Yicai, a Chinese business newspaper. “We should not go too far” in taking pandemic prevention measures in response, he added.

Dong-yan Jin, a professor of virology at the University of Hong Kong who has tracked China’s response to COVID, concurred that many of those recently infected were likely to be older or physically frail people who were fenced off from the “tsunami” of infections late last year.

“The elderly were well protected in the period of the tsunami, because their families and carers tried their best to protect them,” Jin said. “But now the risks for them are high, because people are less vigilant.”

China should increase vaccination rates, especially among older people; upgrade its homegrown vaccine to better protect against new variants; allow the introduction of internationally developed vaccines; and make antiviral drugs cheaper and more available to COVID patients, Jin said.

“Most people have recognised from their own experience that COVID is not a monster and is not so terrifying, and that’s actually positive,” he said. “But it is not true that COVID is gone and will never come again, so this message also has to be made clear to the public.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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