China must speed up preparations for explosive spread of infections

It was appropriate for China to reconsider its infection control measures that were depriving people of their freedom, but easing restrictions drastically while neglecting to improve the medical system is problematic. Beijing needs to expedite its preparations for an explosive spread of infections.

The administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping has effectively ended its zero-COVID policy, which aimed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus through severe restrictions on people’s activities. Tracing whereabouts via smartphones, large-scale PCR testing and the lockdown of vast areas were among the measures that were dropped after being in place for about 2½ years.

With the public’s patience wearing thin, uncommon criticism of the government and protests were swelling, which spurred the government about-face. Other factors that surfaced included an economic slowdown and lingering high unemployment mainly due to factory shutdowns.

Xi has stressed the achievements of the zero-COVID policy, but after being backed into a corner, it can be said he had no other choice but to admit that the policy failed. This may be a demonstration of the flaws of an authoritarian regime, which is unable to flexibly modify its course.

Surely many members of the public are at a loss as to what to do after suddenly being put in a situation where they have to prevent infections through their own efforts. Test kits, therapeutic drugs and antifever medicine are in short supply, and there is a delay in securing hospital beds. Reportedly, there are long lines every day at hospitals and pharmacies.

The number of infections is expected to peak in one or two months. Some estimations are predicting daily infections of several million and an overall death toll of 1 million.

Chinese authorities have set up facilities for outpatients with fevers in tens of thousands of locations across the country, and are rehiring retired medical staff and mobilizing medical students. But the slow response and confusion are notable. It is vital to increase hospital beds in rural areas with weak medical systems and to accelerate vaccinations of the elderly.

The problem is that even after the lifting of restrictions, the information necessary for infection prevention measures remains unclear. The number of cremations at funeral homes has skyrocketed, and while it is obvious that more people are dying of COVID, the death toll announced by Chinese authorities is extremely low.

The Chinese government explained that this is because it no longer includes in the COVID death count infected people who died due to a worsening of underlying conditions. An increase in deaths may be politically undesirable, but this makes it impossible to ascertain the actual situation. It is also essential to disclose the level of strain on hospital beds.

When the virus first started spreading in Wuhan, the authorities concealed relevant information, delaying the initial response and enabling the explosive spread of infections. The Chinese government should keep those mistakes in mind and implement measures based on scientific findings.

The turmoil in China will have an additional impact on the global economy. There are also fears a new variant may emerge due to the swift spread of infections. The international community cannot dismiss the situation as “a fire on the opposite shore,” i.e., someone else’s problem. How about if Japan offers to provide China with U.S.- and European-made vaccines as well as medical support?

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 26, 2022)