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Resurgence of Covid in China and what it means for Xi Jinping

Faced with the biggest protests in decades, Chinese President Xi Jinping removed zero Covid restrictions overnight. Now the country faces a pandemic debacle with millions infected. This is Xi Jinping's darkest hour.

Xi Jinping is fighting Covid again.

The world is again paying anxious attention to the events in China as the country comes into the grips of yet another Covid -19 variant. This time it is called the BF.7 virus that is said to be the sub lineage of the omicron variant of Covid-19. It would not be wrong to say that these past few months have been very eventful for the country, both politically and socially. China witnessed one of the biggest instances of public protests against the draconian ‘zero covid’ policy of the Chinese administration. The citizens of China came on to the streets to express their dissatisfaction and demand the government to roll back the stringent restrictions posed as a part of this policy.

At the heart of these protests was the fact that the policy had rendered the civic and healthcare administration largely fractured. Now, while the Chinese government eventually yielded to the demands of the public by bringing down the zero covid policy, it could not reverse the damage it had done over the years. Much has already been said about how this policy has confined the Chinese citizens to their homes however, the implications of this policy are now being faced by the country in full swing.

Concealing reality?

The new cases in China have led to the resurgence of the fears of a new wave around the world. However, the situation could be far worse than is officially presented by Chinese records. As of now, the country has reported about 5,000 new cases per day and no official deaths ever since the zero-covid restrictions have been uplifted. However, if the World Health Organisation’s data is to be believed, there have been about 152,742 new cases and 452 deaths in the last seven days since the surge. According to this particular data, China stands at about 10,139,199 total infections and 31, 509 deaths over the course of the pandemic.

However, much is being speculated about the credibility of the daily record numbers that the official reports of China are releasing. The World Health Organization is itself reported as saying that China is “struggling to keep a tally” on exact numbers because the released data does not essentially coincide with the rapid rate of hospitalisation in the country.

This lack of transparency is concerning and is particularly reminiscent of the situation two years ago as it seems that the country is once again trying to mask the reality from the world. Various countries, including India have been keeping a close eye on the unfolding situation in China and have even issued advisory to its citizens to follow the essential covid-19 protocols in order to be prepared in the event of a rapid surge.

In order to also influence the death rate records, China recently changed the conditions of being categorised as a ‘covid death’ to just limited to the deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure. This reduces the bracket of the recorded ‘covid related’ deaths by a significant margin as it does not take into account the grave health concerns that are caused by the infection. It could still be said that even though the world may prepare for another potential covid wave, it does not take away the fact China concealing the exact condition of the spread is very concerning.

How did China get here?

Many questions have been already raised about the modus operandi of the Chinese government when it comes to handling the situation of infections. Whether it be the unrealistically harsh restrictions posed on the public in the name of ‘zero tolerance’ for covid, the decisions regarding vaccination or the release of official data, China has often taken a cryptic approach towards the crises.

As per the official advisory of the World Health Organisation, China should resort to using the more effective mRNA vaccines than Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines produced internally by the country. Since the Chinese vaccines are less effective and the people would need extra doses of the vaccine for the same amount of protection, the Chinese population is considered to be under-vaccinated at this point. According to the official data, about 85 per cent of the Chinese population has taken up two doses of the Sinovac or Sinopharm vaccines but only 55 per cent have taken the third booster shot. Administering the vaccines on the elderly population remains a challenge for the Chinese administration as well and more so after it has decided to drop the stringent testing and quarantine regime following the protests.

Among the elderly population, many had been reported to refuse the vaccine. According to the National Health Commision of China, 30 per cent of the people aged 60 and above still had not taken their third shot of the vaccine as of 29th November 2022.

The country had earlier been criticised for not counting the elderly deaths in the official covid death records and the lack of credible data this time as well raises the same issue. This statistics is a matter of concern and must have contributed to the rapid spread of this new variant.

It can be said that the refusal to resort to foreign vaccines for the country’s population is one of the many systemic failures that have resulted in the present situation. It was also due to the restrictions posed under the ‘zero covid’ strategy that included mass testing, rigorous quarantines and contact tracing that the country became eventually ill equipped to live with the virus and adapt. Enough resources were spent on the containment strategy of the virus which included creating isolation booths, quarantine systems and high end testing facilities but no attention was paid to strengthening the healthcare system, providing essential equipment and capacity building through skill training of the medical staff.

Amidst all the claims of success against the virus, suffice it to say that the Chinese approach to the crisis has not been a sustainable one.

Another challenge for Xi

Now, let us bring our attention to the Chinese administration. It has been made obvious that Xi Jinping has been the flagbearer of the zero-covid approach and had precisely reiterated his commitment to the policy as he was taking over for the third consecutive term as the President of the country.

His ascent to the status of the most powerful person in the country has been historic but so are the challenges that face him today. It would not be wrong to say that this Covid-19 crisis is, in part, a result of the poorly thought out strategies on the part of the administration.

Now as the government uplifted the zero- covid strategy, all the systemic cracks are also out in the open. The current situation is bound to create another wave of dissatisfaction and concerns among the general public against this administration. The rapid testing, quarantining border restrictions, contact tracing and inaccessibility to crucial resources had altogether pushed the Chinese public to the brink as they came out on the streets to protest against the draconian policies. With this surge, it is again the Chinese public that would have to bear the brunt of the crisis.

Even though Xi’s administration let go of its fixation over the policies under the ‘zero-covid’ strategy, there still is an absence of an effective exit plan from the resulting crisis for the public. The medicine stocks in big cities of Shanghai and Shenzhen are running out and the hospitals are overcrowded. Amidst all the worsening situation, the lack of any well thought out approach coupled with extra efforts to conceal the reality of the situation would again fuel the dissatisfaction of the public.

A credible risk assessment cannot be done in the absence of complete official data. The Chinese government needs to be held accountable for not providing the correct measure of the situation. At this point it is projected that the country may face more than a million cases per day the next month onwards, based on the World Health Organisation’s assessments and this puts the world in an alarming state.

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