Analysts have warned that more than a million people could die of Covid-19 in China over coming months as the government has removed key measures that have contained the pandemic for several years.
“Beijing and several nearby cities are experiencing massive waves of cases,” Eurasia Group analyst Neil Thomas said in a note on Thursday, adding that it forecasts a “faster-than-expected pivot” but one that could have a costly impact if health systems are overwhelmed.
“The central government has deactivated its national Covid tracking app and has not reimposed restrictions as the wide-scale abandonment of testing, tracking, and isolation allows the virus to spread virtually unchecked,” Thomas said.
“Upward of a million people could die from Covid in the coming months,” he warned, because of the relatively low elderly vaccination rates.
China is racing to vaccinate its most vulnerable people, with officials saying a second booster will be launched this week for elderly people and those with underlying health issues.
The World Health Organisation has also raised concerns that China’s 1.4 billion people are not adequately vaccinated, while the United States has offered to help China deal with a surge in infections.
The pivot away from President Xi Jinping’s signature “zero-Covid” policy followed unprecedented widespread protests against it. But, WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said Covid infections were exploding in China well before the government’s decision to phase out its stringent regime.
“There’s a narrative at the moment that China lifted the restrictions and all of a sudden the disease is out of control,” Ryan told a briefing in Geneva.
“The disease was spreading intensively because I believe the control measures in themselves were not stopping the disease. And I believe China decided strategically that was not the best option anymore.”
Run on Medicines
There are increasing signs of chaos during China’s exit from the zero-Covid policy – with long queues outside fever clinics, runs on medicines, and panic buying across the country.
One video posted online on Wednesday showed more than 10 people, wearing thick winter clothes, hooked up to intravenous drips as they sat on stools on the street outside a hospital clinic in central Hubei province. Reuters verified the location of the video.
For all its efforts to quell the virus in the three years since it erupted in the central city of Wuhan, China may pay a price for shielding a population that lacks “herd immunity”.
“Authorities have let cases in Beijing and other cities spread to the point where resuming restrictions, testing, and tracing would be largely ineffective in bringing outbreaks under control,” Eurasia Group said in its note.
It anticipated a rapid reopening that causes “significant fatalities” and peaks in the first quarter of 2023, but warned that the government may “manipulate health data to lower death counts and deploy censorship, propaganda, and repression to control political fallout”.
The country’s massive propaganda machine has moved to reassure people through news reports, public advisories and media briefings that the Omicron variant “is weaker” and most will have mild or no symptoms if they are infected and can self-isolate at home.
China has said around 90% of its population is vaccinated and its National Health Commission (NHC) said on Wednesday it was necessary to accelerate the promotion of vaccinations.
Vaccinations have been ramping up in recent days. The latest official data shows it administered 1.43 million shots on Tuesday, well above rates in November of around 100,000 to 200,000 doses a day.
In total, it has administered 3.45 billion shots, the data shows.
One care home in Shanghai said on Wednesday it was barring visitors and non-essential deliveries as well as stockpiling medicines, tests kits and protective equipment.
“We are racking our brains on how to ensure the safety of your grandparents,” the Yuepu Tianyi Nursing Home wrote in a letter posted on its official WeChat account page.
Beijing has been largely resistant to western vaccines and treatments, having relied on locally-made shots.
Pfizer’s oral COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid is one of the few foreign ones it has approved. The treatment, however, has only been available in hospitals for high-risk patients, but signs have appeared in recent days that it may soon be available to the wider public.
China Meheco Group said on Wednesday it signed a deal to import the US drugmaker’s treatment.
As the virus spreads, President Xi, his ruling Politburo and senior government officials began a two-day meeting to plot a recovery for China’s battered economy, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.
Policy insiders say the leadership is likely to chart further stimulus steps and discuss growth targets at the closed-door annual Central Economic Work Conference in Beijing, and the official Xinhua news agency said plans would be made to boost domestic consumption and investment.
The world’s second-largest economy lost more steam in November as factory output growth slowed and retail sales extended declines, both missing forecasts and clocking their worst readings since May, data on Thursday showed.
Economists estimate that China’s growth has slowed to around 3% this year, far below the official target of around 5.5%, marking one of China’s worst performances in almost half a century.
- Jim Pollard with Reuters