When China abruptly lifted onerous zero-COVID restrictions in December, the nation wasn’t prepared for a tremendous influx of cases, with hospitals turning away ambulances and crematoriums continuously igniting remains.
The Associated Press discovered that although Chinese state media insisted the decision to open up was “based on scientific analysis and shrewd calculation” and “by no means impulsive,” the country’s ruling Communist Party repeatedly disregarded repeated recommendations from leading medical experts to begin exit plans until it was too late.
Instead, the reopening occurred unexpectedly at the start of winter, when the illness is most contagious. According to academic modeling, more than 20 interviews with current and former employees, experts, and government advisors of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as internal reports and directives obtained by the AP, many older people were not immunized, pharmacies lacked antivirals, and hospitals lacked sufficient supplies or staff, which may have prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths.
According to Zhang Zuo-Feng, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, “so many things could have been averted if they had a real plan to exit earlier.” “Numerous deaths could have been avoided.”
According to experts, several tens of thousands, if not millions, of people may have perished in China’s COVID-19 wave. This figure is significantly greater than the official death toll of less than 90,000, yet it is still considerably lower than that of Western nations.
According to calculations by the University of Hong Kong, 200,000 to 300,000 deaths may have been avoided if the government had been well-immunized and stocked with antivirals. Even more lives, according to some scientists, might have been saved.
According to a China CDC official who declined to be identified to speak openly about a delicate subject, “It wasn’t at all a sound public health judgment.” It’s terrible timing, and this opening was not planned.
Although other nations battled with stop-and-start lockdowns, China stood out for two years with its strict but effective controls against the virus, credited with saving millions of lives. However, the development of the highly contagious omicron variety last year caused many of China’s top medical professionals and policymakers to worry that zero-COVID was not a viable strategy.
China’s top officials started debating how to relax restrictions in late 2021. Leading medical professionals presented a thorough reopening plan to the State Council, China’s cabinet, as early as March 2022. The AP is revealing the document’s existence for the first time.
But, conversations stopped after an outbreak in Shanghai that same month, which led Chinese leader Xi Jinping to close the city down. Chinese public health specialists avoided discussing exit strategies in the media because they were reluctant to oppose a Xi-supported policy openly.
The 20th Party Congress, the nation’s most significant political gathering in a decade, was months away when the Shanghai outbreak was under control, making reopening politically challenging.
Hence, the government continued to test and quarantine millions of people.
One medical professional who wished to remain anonymous since the delicate subject added, “Everyone waits for the party congress.” Everyone is unavoidably overly cautious to some extent.
Top officials at the Congress in mid-October who disagreed with Xi were excluded. Instead, six devoted followers of Xi entered the stage after him in a new leadership lineup, signifying his complete control over the party.
After the congress, a few public health industry opinions were heard. Wu Zunyou, China’s CDC chief epidemiologist, criticized the Beijing city government for its excessive COVID-19 controls, saying it had “no scientific basis” and risked “intensifying public sentiment and causing social dissatisfaction” in an internal document published on October 28 and obtained by The Associated Press and first reported here.
One former CDC official said Wu felt helpless because he was ordered to promote zero-COVID in public, even as he occasionally disagreed with its excesses in private. At the same time, he regarded the central government’s viral policy as “totally correct.”
Wu did not reply to a comment-request email. Wu’s writing of the internal report was confirmed by a person who knows him.
Zhong Nanshan, a physician well known for sounding the alarm about the initial COVID outbreak in Wuhan, was another who spoke up.
According to an individual familiar with Zhong, he wrote to Xi directly to urge a phased reopening and warn him that zero-COVID was unsustainable.
Three persons with direct knowledge of the events claim that in early November, China’s senior “COVID czar,” Sun Chunlan, called meetings with specialists from the health, travel, and economic fields to consider modifying Beijing’s anti-virus regulations. On November 10th, Xi issued corrections.
China unveiled 20 new measures the following day to modify limitations, including reclassifying danger zones and shortening quarantine periods. But Xi also clarified that China would continue to adhere to zero-COVID.
The state desired law and order. Instead, the actions led to anarchy.
Local authorities were uncertain whether to shut down or open up due to conflicting messages from the top. Daily policy changes occurred.
Public discontent reached a boiling point in late November. Nationwide demonstrations against barred doors and other viral control measures were spurred by a fatal apartment fire in Xinjiang, in the far western section of China.
The most significant direct challenge to the Communist Party’s authority since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations was the request for Xi to step down.
After riot police arrived, the demonstrations were quickly put down. But, the atmosphere was changing behind the scenes.
Zero-COVID was no longer mentioned in official government announcements. According to the official newswire Xinhua, the epidemic was generating “fatigue, anxiety, and tension,” and the expense of containment was rising daily.