Visitors wearing face masks tour a pedestrian shopping street at Qianmen on the first day of the Lunar New Year holiday in Beijing |AP Photo
China is celebrating the arrival of the Year of the Rabbit, and almost every factory will be shut for holidays this entire week at least as tens of millions of people travel back to their ancestral homes to celebrate the Lunar New Year with their extended families.
For three years, such celebrations have been on hold due to Covid restrictions, which imposed drastic quarantine measures every time new Covid cases were detected. With Beijing abruptly cancelling all such curbs in December, the Chinese Transport Ministry estimated that more than 2 billion trips will be made over a period of 40 days.
Therein lies a problem. The pandemic has not ended, and in fact, the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the Covid virus is spreading across the country, and a high percentage of the infections are asymptomatic. Health experts now worry that the unfettered mass movement at this time will see the virus reaching the rural areas of the country where health facilities are inadequate.
President Xi Jinping himself has raised concern about this. “I am most worried about the rural areas and farmers. Medical facilities are relatively vulnerable in rural areas, and this means it’s more difficult to prevent [Covid] and the challenge is more arduous,” he said.
It was during the Lunar New Year time three years ago when Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan city, started seeing the outbreak of what was then reported as a "SARS-like disease." Yet, the new year celebrations where tens of thousands gather were allowed to proceed as usual. By the time Beijing ordered a complete lockdown of Wuhan on January 23, 2020, five million people from the city of 12 million had already left.
As the disease spread across the country, Beijing started implementing some of the harshest lockdowns seen in the world, where millions were ordered to stay in their homes and run PCR tests almost every day. Even when the situation stabilized, people were ordered to download a tracking app to monitor their movements and without a green signal from the app, one was not even allowed to board a bus or a train.
That was the state of things for three continuous years while the rest of the world started learning to live with the smaller outbreaks of Covid without disruption of life and the virus evolved into various mutants. But Beijing kept insisting their method of lockdowns and continuous testing was the only way to tackle the situation. That was until the first week of December.
All of a sudden, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dropped its Zero Covid policy, and the government removed all restrictions that were in place until then. The officials suddenly changed their tack and declared the virus as a mild one that needed very little surveillance. Together with this policy U-turn, Beijing also dropped issuing reports about the daily number of cases and narrowed down the definition of Covid deaths.
The sudden opening up sent the Covid cases soaring, and hospitals were inundated with patients seeking treatment. Beijing gave out figures that even the World Health Organization found wanting, and some of the official data were contradictory to even figures released by provincial governments. This lack of transparency is worrying global health experts, as the sudden increase in Covid cases could lead to a more dangerous variant emerging.
However, Hong Kong-based epidemiologist Ben Cowling discounted this fear, saying the Omicron variant would find very little resistance in the Chinese population, which reduces the chances of the need for the virus to mutate. The lack of resistance to Omicron is mainly due to the fact that China has used home-grown vaccines and, like India, has kept the more effective mRNA vaccines at bay.
Another worry that is confronting health experts in the country is the lower rate of vaccination among those aged 80 or above, which stands around 60 percent. The fatality rate among the Covid-infected goes up with age, and this could lead to a very high number of deaths among that age group, they worry.
These fears seem to be not unfounded, as China CDC's chief epidemiologist, Wu Zunyou, said last week that around 1.1 billion people in the country have had Covid since last month. Given the fatality rate of the disease is estimated to be somewhere around 0.3 percent, such a huge spike could see an explosive increase in death rate too. An estimate by UK-based health analytics firm Airfinity found that the country could see up to 36,000 deaths per day during this holiday season.
The situation is still evolving, though social media posts, like large numbers of fresh wreaths in cemeteries and family dinners overwhelmed by sadness due to family deaths, indicate a grim picture. But the CCP is back to a celebratory mood, while New Year entertainment and celebrations are being beamed by the state media. At the Davos Economic Forum, Vice-Premier Liu He presented a rosy picture of the economy while welcoming investors back to the country.
The coming few weeks will determine if this positive mood of CCP leaders is justified. If the flare-up in Covid cases leads to more factory disruptions and erratic supply chains, companies that have already started looking for alternative production facilities will speed up their search. This could have a telling effect on the Chinese economy in the long run.
Perhaps more critical for the CCP will be the effect of a resultant health crisis and a possible spike in deaths. During the CCP congress in October, Xi said in his report that the Zero Covid policy was essential as the party had “the people and their lives above all else”. What made the CCP change its approach in a matter of weeks remains unclear.
But as a lengthy document on the CCP’s sudden shift released by the Asia Society Policy Institute points out, the new turn of events could harm what it tagged as the party’s “unofficial contract with the Chinese people”: to improve the living standards and wealth of the people in exchange for political obedience. As the November Blank Paper Protests against lockdowns showed, an organic protest against the CCP is not implausible, and Beijing would be more worried about such a “disease” spreading across the country.