How the sudden lifting of China’s Zero Covid plunged the country into turmoil
Published by The Daily Mail (January 2nd, 2023)
The man’s note to his neighbours was polite. He stated that his father had died in their Shanghai flat from Covid-19 and ‘deeply apologised’ for any ‘trouble and fear’ that this might have caused their fellow residents.
He explained that he was doing his best to remove his father’s body ‘as soon as possible’, but overloaded officials were unable to collect the corpse for a funeral until after New Year.
He had tried to contact a nearby cemetery but got no response — hardly surprising as videos on social media show long lines of hearses queuing up to dispose of coffins holding Chinese pandemic victims. Since it is illegal to keep infected corpses at home, the man warned his neighbours that he planned ‘to find a clear empty plot in our building complex and cremate the remains myself’.
Once, Beijing’s state media mocked nations such as India that incinerated corpses of pandemic victims in town squares. Now the regime is so crippled by Covid that sons must burn the bodies of their fathers outside blocks of flats in its leading cities.
Such is the pitiful state of today’s China, the country that gave birth to the pandemic just over three years ago, but which has long boasted of its supposedly world-beating ability to contain this cruel disease.
Astonishing leaked figures from Chinese health authorities estimate that 250 million people — almost one in five citizens — caught Covid in the first 20 days of last month after President Xi Jinping abruptly dismantled rigid restrictions imposed since 2020.
Having enforced the world’s strictest controls with ruthless lockdowns, relentless testing and rigid mass quarantines, Xi was panicked into making a humiliating about-turn on December 7 after a spate of protests.
With a fragile health system and inadequate vaccination rates, the impact was instant and predictable. One hospital in Shanghai warned that half the 26 million residents of the country’s most populous city will be infected by now and urged staff to prepare for a ‘tragic battle’ in the coming weeks.
Other cities are being hit just as hard. ‘I can name 20 people I know from different cities who have been infected over the past two weeks,’ said a journalist in Shanghai, who has caught Covid along with his partner. ‘It’s spreading like wildfire.’
Videos shared on social media that evade strict censorship show deserted streets and desperate patients in over-crowded hospitals, which are so overwhelmed that the elderly are treated in beds outside in car parks. They expose hospital morgues flooded with corpses, warehouses overflowing with coffins, crematoria unable to cope with demand despite burning huge numbers of bodies each day and pharmacies with shelves swept clean of drugs.
The consequences of President Xi’s imperious actions and China’s immense Covid outbreak are alarming — for the health of its citizens, for the prosperity of the global economy and for the future of this lethal pandemic.
Yet typically — in keeping with the Communist dictatorship’s deceitful behaviour ever since this strange new virus emerged within its borders — officials claim to be focused on protecting lives as they pump out ludicrous data downplaying a tide of fatalities.
So last Wednesday, for instance, there was just one new Covid death across China and then one more on each of the next two days, according to Beijing’s claims.
Yet one person in Chengdu, a city of more than 16 million people, went to a crematorium after their grandmother died only to discover ‘hearses stacked with bodies’ lined up in front. Many had been there for days. ‘They cremate more than 1,000 bodies every day lately,’ said this bereaved citizen. ‘Funeral ceremonies have all been cancelled because there’s not enough time.’
A funeral home worker in the south-western city estimated there had been a five-fold surge in cremations since the government lifted Covid restrictions. ‘We’re so busy we don’t even have time to eat,’ he added.
Staff at a big funeral home in Beijing said their incinerators were running full-time but there was still a three-week backlog. Fees have doubled.
At least 2,700 people died from Covid in the capital on a single day before Christmas, according to one report. ‘There is no more cold storage space for bodies,’ disclosed another crematorium worker in a third major city.
China’s health authorities have stopped sharing daily pandemic data and restricted criteria for recording deaths, leading one formerly loyal party mouthpiece to criticise official numbers that ‘deviated widely from the experiences of the public’.
The real statistics look terrifying: one Chinese study predicts almost one million deaths will occur during the first months of re-opening, while a British analytics firm suggests 1.7 million fatalities by the spring.
And in an echo of the pandemic’s frightening early days, there is growing global concern over Chinese travellers as Beijing opens up its borders. More than half the passengers on one flight to Milan last week were found to be infected. Several countries, including the UK, are imposing tests on arrivals from China, worried that, left to run unchecked through such a vast population, the virus will breed lethal new variants.
Experts believe the situation for many other countries is different today, however, given easy access to vaccines, the build-up of immunity in populations long exposed to Covid and the evolution of the disease to become more contagious but less deadly.
‘We do not need to be as alarmed as when this virus first appeared,’ said Simon Wain-Hobson, the virologist who discovered the genetic blueprint of HIV. ‘But many elderly people — and some young people too — are going to be hit hard in China.’
After almost three years of stringent measures, President Xi ditched his draconian approach following defiant protests from citizens in at least a dozen cities last month. Some even dared to directly challenge his repressive rule.
One middle-aged illustrator in Guangzhou said the switch happened with ‘unreal’ speed. His wife received a ‘yellow code’ warning on her phone that she must take a Covid test — then a second message the same day saying the policy had changed.
‘Before that, the yellow code most likely meant the police would take you away for six weeks,’ he said. ‘I saw people locked up in one of the quarantine camps just let loose into the road — thousands of people, all with their suitcases. It was crazy.’
Unsurprisingly, many citizens were perplexed by the sudden change of tone from officials who had failed to thwart the virulent Omicron variant with another wave of increasingly loathed lockdowns. ‘Government officials described Omicron as if it was the demon of the century just a few weeks ago but suddenly it is no worse than common flu,’ said one baffled man.
Others were simply left infuriated. ‘Our lives are worthless like ants,’ complained a commentator on social media site Weibo. ‘All of a sudden the restrictions are lifted and you are allowed to go to work while ill.’
The shift came just weeks after President Xi won his third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.
Styling himself ‘commander-in-chief’ of a ‘people’s war’ against the virus, he had staked huge political capital on Zero Covid — the policy to stamp out the virus at every turn with strict lockdowns and mass quarantines. He held aloft the country’s official low death rate as proof of the superiority of China’s authoritarian system compared to Western democracies ravaged with far higher fatalities.
The hardline leader packed his new top team with hand-picked toadies — yet one brave regional party boss reportedly pleaded with Xi to ditch his precious public health policies that were proving so destructive to their economy.
There are claims the founder of Foxconn, which employed hundreds of thousands of workers churning out products for Apple, also begged for them to end after they sparked riots at the firm’s huge factory complex in Zhengzhou.
Yet the dictatorship seems to have made no preparation for the sudden lifting of such sweeping controls, leaving hospitals swamped, deaths surging and medicines in short supply.
Scores of chilling videos show hospitals — struggling and under-funded even before this tsunami of Covid cases — with coughing and shivering patients crammed in corridors, slumped in wheelchairs and surrounded by anxious relatives.
In footage posted last Tuesday, a medic clad in blue protective clothing can be seen frantically pumping a patient’s chest in an over-crowded waiting room. Another video recorded the next day shows nurses treating patients in what appears to be a car park.
A third, taken last week in Shanghai, reveals comatose patients in beds outside the hospital door hooked to drips and oxygen tanks as they are treated by medical staff while several ambulances, their lights flashing, are parked nearby.
More than 10 million people viewed another video posted on Weibo of a man on his knees, begging for his child to be treated.
‘I’m also on my knees,’ responds the doctor. ‘Everyone is waiting, children and the elderly — you are not the only one.’
Hospitals complain of desperate shortages of beds, oxygen tanks and ventilators. ‘If you can’t even give him oxygen, how can you rescue him?’ asked one despairing medic near Beijing, pleading with a group of people to transfer a patient to a better-equipped hospital.
Journalists tell of families of seriously ill relatives forced to take their own beds into hospitals.
The crisis has intensified as medical staff become infected. In some hospitals more than half the doctors and nurses have been absent after testing positive. Retired staff are being hastily called back to the frontline.
There have been protests from medical students demanding better pay and protection after the death of a 23-year-old junior doctor in Chengdu, who reportedly collapsed due to overwork while suffering from Covid.
A bulletin from another hospital disclosed how one of its pharmacists ‘passed out from high-intensity work’ at 4am.
There has also been widespread coverage of the sudden deaths ‘due to illness’ of several celebrities including a prominent female opera singer, a former footballer and Wu Guanying, the 67-year-old designer of the Beijing Olympics mascot. One newspaper also noted that 13 leading scientists had died in just six days.
The National Health Commission insists it is making decisions based on protecting lives and ‘fighting a battle’ for which it had prepared. ‘We’re absolutely not just passively letting go,’ said deputy director Li Bin.
Yet the riptide policy was summed up by one critic as ‘early infections, early deaths, early peak, early resumption of production’ — a callous acceptance of mass fatalities to revive a faltering economy.
Others argue that officials — pandering to the vanities of their egotistical president and his desire to promote China on the world stage — blew vast sums on prevention efforts and building quarantine facilities rather than beefing up health infrastructure.
‘China’s lack of preparation for the reopening has been made worse by the fact that they have got all their priorities wrong from the very start,’ said Wang Xiangwei, former editor of the South China Morning Post.
The government, however, is belatedly trying to drive up low rates of vaccination booster shots among its elderly citizens — although it refuses to accept Western-made mRNA vaccines that are more effective than its own homegrown medicines.
One man in Shanghai told the Mail that he was planning to spend £1,200 on taking his wife and two children to Hong Kong to access the Pfizer vaccine.
In most countries, opening up after lockdown led to excitement as communities came together and life started returning to normal. But in the place that pioneered such controversial policies to try to defeat the virus — a dictatorship posing as a bastion of good governance — any such feelings are fused with fear and a sense of abandonment.
‘We just don’t know what’s going on,’ said one professional man in his 50s. ‘It feels quite hopeless. It doesn’t feel like there’s any strategy. Everyone knows the government screwed up. We are all really angry.’