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From ‘enemy of humanity’ to ‘simple flu’: China’s abrupt Covid-19 policy reversal

After three years of iron-fisted containment measures and recent backtracking on its zero-Covid policy, government officials and state media are now downplaying the risk of the virus

Covid-19 China
Shoppers buying medicine at a Beijing pharmacy in December.REUTERS TV (REUTERS)

When China abruptly reversed course in its battle against Covid-19, so did its official narrative about the disease that plunged the planet into its biggest crisis since World War II. Eleven months after the contagious Omicron variant broke out, and in the midst of its worst infection surge ever, the world’s most populous nation has abandoned a narrative that criticized the West – and especially the United States – for its “mistaken perception that this strain is little more than a flu.”

In a remarkable about-face, Chinese officialdom is now saying things like “the virus is not so dangerous anymore,” and “citizens [not the state] must be responsible for their own health.” Three weeks after this U-turn, President Xi Jinping, who had personally assumed leadership of the “people’s battle against the virus,” has not made any public statements on this new stance.

After months of strict lockdowns, mandatory testing and rigorous contact tracing that chafed large swaths of the country’s 1.4 billion citizens, Beijing now says that its anti-pandemic fight is “in a new stage.” During the first two years of the pandemic, China’s heavy-handed anti-virus measures enabled the country to maintain low levels of infections and deaths (officially, only 5,241 people have died). But this approach did little to contain the surge in Omicron cases that broke out in January 2022.

When infection rates continued to rise in the spring, the government responded forcefully while state media touted the zero-Covid strategy as “the greatest proof of the superiority of the Chinese system.” A search of recent Global Times (a state-controlled daily tabloid) articles turns up phrases like, “To abandon the fight against Covid-19 and let it spread freely is a betrayal of humanity,” and “The fallacy that Omicron is little more than a flu is a ploy to weaken the Chinese people’s support of the zero-Covid strategy.”

President Xi has made no public statements about the policy reversal

Pro-government pundits, including controversial former Global Times editor Hu Xijin, have gone from defending strict containment measures to downplaying the risks of the virus. Some are even posting on social media about how they are personally coping with the disease. Zhong Nanshan, a respected epidemiologist and leading spokesperson during the early days of the pandemic, recently suggested that the Omicron variant should be called “a coronavirus cold.” The sharp turnaround is particularly surprising considering that when World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in May that the zero-Covid policy was not sustainable with such a contagious variant, China immediately censored his remarks.

President Xi Jinping had repeatedly warned that relaxing the measures would be devastating and would lead to “a large number of serious cases and deaths.” He urged everyone to “resolutely fight against those who distort, debate or challenge prevention policies.” In March, state media credited the Chinese leader with personally formulating the zero-Covid strategy. Xi gained a great deal of legitimacy as the “commander-in-chief of the battle against the virus,” which enabled him to win an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and become the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

“By launching an all-out war of the people against the virus, we have protected their health and safety to the utmost possible, and achieved tremendously encouraging responses to the epidemic and in economic and social development,” Xi stated at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The last time the Chinese president was quoted as leading the fight against Covid-19 was on November 10, when he pledged to “tirelessly” implement the zero-Covid strategy while minimizing its impact on the economy and society. The very next day, Beijing issued 20 guidelines to “optimize” Covid-19 protocols, but local officials continued to enforce lockdowns, fearing that too much loosening would lead to accelerated infection rates. This ignited the largest social protests of the Xi era, and hastened the demise of the zero-Covid policy.

Wasted resources

Although Chinese officials and health experts publicly claim that the policy reversal is due to a less lethal virus, foreign epidemiologists say the government wasted resources and time instead of nipping the problem in the bud. The millions spent on daily testing campaigns and building confinement centers would have been better spent on vaccinating the elderly and increasing the capacity of intensive care units. A lengthy front-page article published on December 15 in the CCP’s People’s Daily newspaper stated, “The facts show that our anti-pandemic policy is correct, scientific and effective. It has won the support of the people and will stand the test of time.” The article concluded that Xi’s policy has been “completely correct” throughout.

President Xi has made no public statements about the policy reversal. On December 7, when the government announced the cancellation of the zero-Covid strategy, Xi was on his way to Saudi Arabia for a state visit, suggesting that he wants to avoid being linked to the consequences of the country’s abrupt reopening. Airfinity, a British predictive health analytics company, estimates that China will soon experience more than a million infections and 5,000 deaths per day.

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