The turn in anti-pandemic policy in China has been so sudden that the current wave of covid, which is hitting cities like Beijing hard, is joined by another wave of humor and memes on social networks that somehow help cushion the blow of the virus. . There are all kinds of jokes. One says: “If you live in Beijing and you don’t have at least 10 friends with covid… Do you have friends?” In another, the Chinese people, as if they were a Greek chorus, ask the government when it will put an end to the already defunct zero covid policy:
—The town: when will we open?
—The Government: Ten
—The people: ten months? Ten weeks?
—The Government: Nine, eight, seven…
The countdown has been dizzying. After the cry of the protesters who demanded an end to the iron-fisted anti-pandemic strategy at the end of November —the largest social protests in the era of President Xi Jinping, immediately silenced with a forceful police deployment—, Beijing has executed an unceremonious turn and the ship has set course for unknown land, going from covid zero to a new space-time dimension that is quite reminiscent of Europe at the end of 2021: infections fly and many, before staying, take an antigen test just in case .
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Things have changed almost overnight. On Wednesday, the Council of State (the equivalent of the Government) declared the scaffolding of the zero covid policy dead by approving a decalogue of measures that include the possibility of recovering from the virus at home, as long as it is mild, the drastic reduction of the massive testing of the population through PCR, the generalization of antigen tests and the disappearance of the obligation to present negative PCR tests and to scan the health QR code in a good number of public spaces, signing the death sentence of this formula of health hypercontrol against which the protesters clamored: “Fuck the QRs!”.
Happiness, if one does a survey without too much scientific criteria among the population, it is evident. But the result is not the ecstasy of the citizens that one would expect after almost three years, but rather a strange anticlimax: in the capital there are half-empty streets, closed restaurants, closed schools, shops at half throttle or even out of supplies, and all kinds of plans and events. they hang by a thread or are canceled because someone—and this is the real news—has tested positive or has been in contact with one.
Panic to get medicine
Some media have reported moments of “panic” in Beijing over medicines, a shortage of fever medicines and waiting to be treated in hospitals. The prices of some medicines have skyrocketed and the State Administration for Market Regulation of China, the country’s market watchdog, which is already investigating irregular increases in amounts, issued a warning on Friday with red lines to ensure stability. , according to The Global Times. A confused mixture of joy for the reopening and self-imposed confinement floats in the environment, at least until the viral scourge of this recently inaugurated coexistence with covid-19 passes.
“It is great news. I think the government has made a good decision,” says Huiqin Ma, 52, a professor at the China Agricultural University in Beijing and a wine specialist. She says that she didn’t expect such a quick turn. But she, at the same time, has seen it in a natural way. “People could hardly take it anymore and the economic situation could not stand the strict regulations any longer.” She acknowledges that there will be costs: “It will be painful, people will die, a small proportion, because the lethality has dropped. But most will be relieved.” And after this “great wave of omicron”, which will soon end, they will be packing their bags for “the year of the post-pandemic”, says this accomplished traveler that she misses contact with the outside world.
Twist in the official story
Huiqin talks on the phone while taking his routine walk these days of widespread teleworking in the capital. He acknowledges that there are many people who still regard the disease with respect after years in which the official media have exposed an especially crude version. The state press has orchestrated a drastic turn in the story in recent weeks, pointing to the omicron as a not very harmful variant. And she believes that as covid spreads, a milder version will also spread through word of mouth.
His mother lives in the province of Hebei, who has just gone through the coronavirus with a slight sore throat. According to her, in that area her attitude has gone from fear to expectation of her, after seeing many around her recover without problems. They are “relaxed”, she assures her, and at the same time “a little nervous”. “They are waiting for their infection, because for everyone it is something new. It’s like the first time you got married,” she recounts.
The official figures in Beijing were around 3,400 infections on Friday, about 16,800 in the country, less than half that of two weeks ago. But many believe that the statistics have ceased to reflect reality because the obligation to perform PCR has disappeared and the usual thing now is to use the antigen test. Somehow, the iron control of the State has passed to health self-management.
“In Beijing alone, the number of new infections in a single day has exceeded the more than 20,000 cases announced by the National Health Commission. [para toda China]”, Hu Xijin, an analyst close to the Government who became a champion of the end of covid zero, estimated on Friday in a message on social networks. Hu has even advocated that the Executive stop reporting the data on infections – “which is obviously not true” – if it does not better explain the divergence.
If one had slept for two weeks, it would be almost impossible to recognize Beijing. At maximum peaks of infections, the fences of the confined blocks are dismantled and kiosks are removed where one religiously went daily to have a PCR. Misalignments typical of the viral impact are also perceived, but for the moment it does not seem to be getting worse: queues are seen in pharmacies and, due to the infections, there is a shortage of delivery men in a country very used to ordering everything at home, causing delays and cancellations at a sensitive moment.
“It is good that they lift the restrictions and allow people to take care of their own health,” says a 20-something Beijinger, who does not seem very concerned, about to take a flight to go skiing in another province. Another young man, employed by a multinational, assumes the inevitable. Among his colleagues, he says, there are already many infected. “Finally I see that I am going to have covid too, it is a matter of time. 80% or 90% of the people are going to take it”.
On Tuesday, as Beijing was cooking up the swing, Feng Zijan, a health policy adviser and former director of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, argued at a conference at Tsinghua University in Beijing that a massive first wave would affect to about 60% of the Chinese population (almost 850 million people) and, eventually, about 90% of Chinese people will end up infected, according to their predictions.
Some fear a possible collapse of the Chinese hospital system. A study by Wigram Capital Advisors, cited this week by Financial Times, speaks of a possible unprecedented wave that could cause by March, after the displacements of the Chinese New Year holidays, about 20,000 daily deaths and add up to a million deaths. China has registered just over 5,200 deaths from covid to date, according to official figures. Part of Beijing’s strategy involves a strong immunization campaign among the elderly, one of the weak points so far.
“I think a lot of people are happy, but there are also a lot of people who are very worried about what comes next,” says Xinran Andy Chen, a Shanghai-based analyst at Trivium China. In his opinion, Beijing has orchestrated a “chaotic and disorderly” exit strategy, which did not come before because President Xi was facing the great five-year political event at the end of October, the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, in which he collected the baton for a third term. Before the conclave, Beijing prioritized “social stability above all else.”
This analyst believes that if the number of cases and victims increases, a part of the population could be scared and question the reopening. “When stories of unaffected covid patients dying because hospitals are overcrowded come to light, it is likely that there will also be calls to slow down the reopening process and that some will even question the previous commitment of the Government to put life and people’s health above all else. Chen believes that the party already had the zero covid end point in mind and the protests accelerated it. But there were other key factors, such as the unaffordable cost of carrying out centralized quarantines in the face of the wave of infections.
Many believe that the change has come late, but they celebrate it in any case and look to the future with optimism. “It’s good for society, for people and for the economy,” a Chinese investor who preferred to remain anonymous stressed over the phone. By extension, he adds, it will be “beneficial for Europe and the United States”, since it implies the return of China to the world. This man, who has been on the board of directors of leading technology companies, estimates that a peak of infections will be reached in two or three weeks. And from that moment things will improve. He acknowledges that there will be deaths, but the numbers should be put in the context of a country of 1.4 billion inhabitants. He proposes to keep the bottles for a few weeks, until the shock passes. And then celebrate accordingly.
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