China woefully under-prepared as it grapples with Covid tsunami

Chinese officials estimate about 250 million people (18 per cent of the population) were infected with Covid-19 in the first 20 days of December, as Beijing abruptly dismantled restrictions that had contained the disease for almost three years.

The estimates – including 37 million people (2.6 per cent of the population) who were infected on Tuesday alone – were revealed by Sun Yang, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in a Wednesday health briefing, said two people familiar with the matter.

Sun said that the rate of Covid’s spread in the country was still rising and estimated that more than half of the population in Beijing and Sichuan were already infected, the people briefed on the meeting said, Financial Times reported.

The explosion in cases followed Beijing’s decision this month to abandon its zero-Covid policy, which kept the virus at bay through mass testing, mandatory quarantine and draconian lockdowns.

Sun’s figures, which were provided in a closed-door meeting, contrast with data put out by the National Health Commission, which reported 62,592 symptomatic Covid cases over the same period. Last week, China stopped publicly trying to tally the total number of infections after authorities curtailed Covid testing.

The lack of information made public by China on its Covid wave has led Washington and the World Health Organization to push Beijing to be more transparent about case counts, disease severity, hospital admission figures and other health statistics that have been made widely available by other countries, Financial Times reported.

In China’s capital and other cities, the wave of Covid infections has overwhelmed hospitals with an influx of elderly, bedridden patients and left emergency rooms and intensive care units with fewer available beds.

The NHC’s official account of the Wednesday event provided little detail on what the country’s top health officials discussed. But in the meeting, Ma Xiaowei, director of the NHC, demanded hospitals sort out their overflowing emergency rooms and move patients into inpatient departments, said one of the people who participated in the meeting. He also urged midsize and large hospitals to take in more patients with severe symptoms and promised regulators would not hold them accountable for rising fatality rates, Financial Times reported.

Fever medicine in short supply, hospitals and emergency services swamped, an acute blood shortage in many cities, the death toll soaring among the elderly, and morgues and funeral parlours overwhelmed with bodies.

In a word, China is woefully under-prepared for the chaos that is inevitably unfolding since the controls were lifted, as seen in other countries, Wang Xiangwei wrote in South China Morning Post.

There are similar horror stories all over Chinese social media. One influencer has started a daily death count, highlighting that prominent Peking University professors in their late 70s and early 80s have been dying at an abnormal rate, the SCMP article said.

As has been widely reported, China did an about-face on its zero-Covid policy, lifting almost all controls because of mass protests in late November. But the protests were just the trigger. The underlying issue is that China’s leaders have finally comprehended the magnitude of the devastating impact of the policy on the economy.

The acute shortage of fever medicine is also a situation of Beijing’s own making. Strict rules have for the past three years discouraged people from buying such medicine over the counter, with the aim of sending anyone infected with the virus to quarantine facilities and makeshift hospitals.

That has meant that all pharmacies across the country have limited stocks of fever medicine and pharmaceutical firms had significantly curtailed their production of it. Now the authorities have asked them to ramp up production around the clock, SCMP reported.

Additionally, since medical resources were directed into mass testing and quarantine three years ago, hospitals around the country simply don’t have enough ICU beds and equipment to cope with the surging coronavirus cases. Moreover, hospitals are in dire need of qualified and trained doctors and nurses to work in those ICUs.

The authorities are now stepping up training and recruiting ICU doctors and nurses – but this takes time, which they don’t have at this critical moment, the report said.

Now, as an unprecedented wave of infections rips through China, its state media is deliberately ignoring scenes of crowded hospital wards and packed crematoriums unfolding at home, while officials insist that by the government’s own count, few people are dying of Covid, CNN reported.

For nearly three years, China’s hardline zero-Covid policy shielded its population from the kind of mass deaths that haunted Western nations – a contrast repeatedly driven home by the Communist Party to illustrate the supposed superiority of its rule.

But as China abruptly abandoned that strategy, with little warning or apparent preparation, the prospect of surging deaths – projected by some studies to be as high as one million – has become a thorny issue for a government that staked its legitimacy on “saving lives”, CNN reported.

Officially, China reported only eight Covid deaths this month – a strikingly low figure given the rapid spread of the virus and the relatively low vaccine booster rates among the vulnerable elderly.

The official tally has been met with disbelief and ridicule online, where posts mourning loved ones dying of Covid abound. Caixin, a Chinese financial magazine known for its investigative pieces, reported on the deaths of two veteran state media journalists infected with Covid, on days the official toll stood at zero, CNN reported.

Nearly 37 million people in China may have been infected with Covid-19 on a single day this week, according to estimates from the government’s top health authority, making the country’s outbreak by far the world’s largest, Bloomberg reported.

As many as 248 million people, or nearly 18 per cent of the population, likely contracted the virus in the first 20 days of December, according to minutes from an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission held on Wednesday, confirmed with people involved in the discussions. If accurate, the infection rate would dwarf the previous daily record of about 4 million, set in January 2022, Bloomberg reported.

Chinese officials and companies are letting Covid-positive people return to work in a bid to keep the economy running, despite a massive Covid surge that could be as large as a million cases a day, Fortune reported.

Officials in Zhejiang province announced over the weekend that those who test positive for Covid could go to work, so long as they showed no symptoms. Then on Monday, Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities and a major manufacturing hub, went one step further by allowing those with mild symptoms to return to the office without testing.

A day later, city officials in Beijing said that Covid-positive patients in home isolation could return to work without needing to test so long as they did not have a fever. Previously, a negative test was required to leave home isolation, Fortune reported.

Directives from Chinese government officials that allow people to go work sick represent a major change in tone from just weeks ago, when Beijing was still wedded to a tough policy of lockdowns and mass testing to completely suppress COVID outbreaks. Now, as China rapidly eases its COVID controls, officials are trying to reassure ordinary Chinese worried about a rapid surge in cases.

Factories are also trying to prepare their workforces for a COVID wave. On December 12, Qin Lihong, president of electric-car maker Nio, told reporters that the company had “sent trucks of medicines and equipment to the factory to be well prepared.”

Some manufacturers are using “closed-loop” systems, where workers live on-site with strict movement controls, in order to keep infections out. Companies like Tesla used these systems to keep factory lines running during earlier COVID outbreaks and lockdowns, Fortune reported.

(Sanjeev Sharma can be reached at Sanjeev.s@ians.in)

20221225-101002

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