Pacific Dialogue
Turning the corner
By Liang Xiao  ·  2022-12-26  ·   Source: NO.51 DECEMBER 22, 2022

In line with optimized COVID-19 response measures rolled out by the Chinese Government in early December, quarantine requirements and travel restrictions have been lifted or relaxed across the country. Subsequently, the number of patients infected with the Omicron variant has quickly increased in many places. A lot of people have turned to social media to detail their symptoms, which have included a persistent high fever of more than 39 degrees Celsius, soreness throughout the body and severe tonsil inflammation. Some people stated that trying to drink water was as painful as swallowing broken glass.

However, unlike what was seen beginning in 2020, when the fear that the Chinese people felt about facing an unknown virus was obvious, calm is the reaction now. With home rest and medication, the vast majority of infected people can recover within a few days. While the first week of trying to return to normal life passed relatively smoothly, experts predicted that the real peak of infection had not yet arrived.

Feng Zijian, former Deputy Director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and an adviser on China's COVID task force, said the surge could infect 60 percent of the country's 1.4 billion plus population, meaning more than 840 million people. He added that eventually 80 to 90 percent of Chinese residents may be infected. "On the basis of vaccine immunization and natural infection, people's immunity to the virus can be slightly strengthened, and the harm of the virus to human beings can be greatly reduced," Feng said.

Since the start of 2022, voices calling on the Chinese Government to adjust its dynamic zero-COVID measures have been heard both at home and abroad. Public opinion also generally believes that China's response strategies will be gradually adjusted at the end of this year or the beginning of 2023, and it will eventually let people fully return to their normal living conditions. But as the latest Omicron variant has an R0 coefficient of 22, meaning that a carrier of the variant can infect 22 others, the situation in several Chinese cities shows that even when applying strict lockdown measures, it is impossible to block transmission chains.

China has taken a big step forward, yet criticisms from outside the country are being heard. A Financial Times report, titled China COVID Reversal Risks One Million Deaths in Winter Wave, published on December 7, reviewed information from an Asian macroeconomic advisory firm, Wigram Capital Advisors. It predicted a death toll of 20,000 people a day by mid-March in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, with daily hospitalizations peaking at 70,000 if the country tries to "reopen too fast." The report also cited a study released in May by researchers at Shanghai's Fudan University that estimated an unchecked surge of the Omicron variant in China could lead to almost 1.6 million fatalities within about three months.

It's safe to say such a tragedy will not happen in China, a country that has effectively coped with five waves of the pandemic, and one that continues to see one of the lowest infection rates and death tolls in the world. However, it remains a severe challenge that the vaccination rate among senior people is not sufficient and the shortage of intensive care units in China has existed since the onset of the pandemic.

China has begun to make up for the shortcomings in these two areas. A special campaign to vaccinate seniors has been launched across the country. The country's intensive care capacity currently stands at roughly 10 beds per 100,000 people. According to the National Health Commission, major county-level hospitals should increase the number of those for intensive care to 4 percent of their total beds before the end of this year, and the proportion should be 8 percent for large comprehensive medical institutions nationwide. For China, protecting the lives of high-risk groups as much as possible is a top priority.

"We are much closer to being able to say that the emergency phase of the pandemic is over­—but we're not there yet," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization Director General, said on December 2. China's response to the novel coronavirus has entered a new phase. What comes will come, but there remains a belief in the cause of victory. 

Copyedited by Anthony Moretti 

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