COVID rise in China sparks fears millions could die

  • Experts warn that COVID is spreading so fast that nearly two-thirds of the country could be infected in the next three months

  • On December 7, President Xi abruptly relaxed most of the isolation rules in the face of mass protests.

  • Next outbreak shows China’s ‘zero COVID’ policy has failed

  • Read the full article below to understand the potential impact on other countries

People line up to buy medicine at a pharmacy during the Covid-19 outbreak in Nanjing, eastern China's Jiangsu province, December 20, 2022.  - China OUT (Photo by AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty)

People are lining up to buy medicine at a pharmacy in Nanjing as COVID cases increase. (Getty Images)

Health experts fear that 60% of people in China, or 10% of the world’s population, may become infected with COVID-19 in the next three months amid the dramatic increase in infections.

Faced with escalating protests and growing public anger at Beijing’s continued brutal measures throughout the pandemic, President Xi Jinping made the decision to abruptly relax the lockdown curbs in early December.

It was seen by many as an admission of failure in the country’s zero-COVID-19 policy.

As infections increase, some experts have warned that allowing the virus to wreak havoc on a population with relatively low innate immunity could result in up to 2.1 million deaths in the worst-case scenario.

It also raised the disturbing possibility of further mutations that could spread to other parts of the overseas world. This week, the US government described the new Chinese wave as “a threat to people everywhere”.

Read more: Chinese television accused of editing photos of World Cup fans not wearing face masks

Vehicles wear protective masks as they board the subway train as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreaks continue in Shanghai, China, December 20, 2022.  REUTERS/Casey Hall

While commuters on a Shaghai subway train wear masks, many voluntarily stay at home. (Reuters)

China has officially recorded around 6,000 COVID-related deaths out of a population of 1.4 billion, with over 210,000 among the UK population of 68 million.

However, until recently it became clear that the Chinese were willing to enter the quarantine camps and turn a blind eye to the barriers erected to keep them in their territory.

Now China has switched to a “living with COVID” model.

The vaccination rate is officially over 90%, but according to government data, the rate drops to 57.9% for empowered adults and to 42.3% for those aged 80 and over.

The lack of local doctors in vaccination campaigns, poor medical understanding and lack of insurance for possible side effects also dampen enthusiasm, according to a publication by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Moreover, vaccines such as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines developed overseas are not available to the public in China.

Read more: Concern over China’s Covid rise grows as cities scramble to support healthcare

December 20, 2022, beds are seen in a fever clinic set up in a sports field while the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemics continue in Beijing.  REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Beds in a fever clinic set up in a Beijing gym to deal with COVID outbreaks. (Reuters)

While health officials believe the Chinese-made Sinopharm and Sinovac-CoronaVac vaccines are safe, they are skeptical about their effectiveness compared to their foreign-made mRNA counterparts, according to Kelly Lei, a doctor in Shenzhen, southern China.

This, combined with the lack of natural immunity due to years of restrictions, seems to be taking its toll.

Some estimates suggest that half of Beijing’s population of 22 million may already have COVID-19, according to the Financial Times.

According to epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, health experts expect 60% of the Chinese population, or 10% of the world’s population, to be infected within the next 90 days.

He tweeted a video clip of an overcrowded ward, saying, “Since restrictions were dropped, hospitals in China have been completely overrun… this is just the beginning.” said.

A recent study by London-based health analytics firm Airfinity suggested that removing zero COVID-19 could lead to 1.3 to 2.1 million deaths among China’s still vulnerable population.

Read more: China has reported its first COVID-19 deaths in weeks, and that number could rise, experts say

A man holds white papers to protest coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions after a vigil for victims of the Urumqi fire amid ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in Beijing, China, 28 November 2022.  REUTERS / Thomas Peter

November saw a wave of protests against zero COVID-19 lockdown measures in major cities across China. (Reuters)

Meanwhile, scientists at China’s National Health Commission estimate the country’s R number is currently an alarming 16, meaning that each infected person will infect 16 people on average.

Since the current increase, there have been reports that hospitals have been flooded, pharmacies are emptying of medicines, and many are self-isolating.

“People stay away because they’re sick or afraid of getting sick, but now I think it’s because they’re really sick,” a trainer from the nearly empty Shanghai gym told Reuters news agency.

Bodies are reportedly piling up in some morgues and crematoriums amid some allegations that Beijing is covering up the true scale of COVID-related deaths.

In addition to having a huge human cost, the current increase in cases could have a serious impact on the Chinese economy, leading to a sicker workforce, disrupted logistics and slower production.

China’s GDP is expected to grow only 3% this year, marking the worst performance in nearly half a century.

Read more: Economist says COVID: China ‘puts an incredible amount of weight on them’

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the 29th APEC Economic Leaders meeting (AELM) during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, Thailand, on November 19, 2022.  via Jack Taylor/Pool, REUTERS

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been under pressure to do something, but the complete lifting of such heavy restrictions could have dramatic consequences. (Reuters)

A World Economy survey showed that business confidence in the country fell to its lowest level since January 2013 in December.

According to United Nations data, the People’s Republic accounted for 28.4% of global production in 2019 and is the largest exporter of consumer goods.

“The toll of the virus worries the rest of the world, given the size of China’s GDP, given the size of the Chinese economy,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday.

Read more: Hearse line in Beijing after Covid curbs are lifted

“Being in a stronger position in the face of COVID is good not only for China, but also for the rest of the world.”

But Beijing seemed to be stuck between a rock and a hard place, with some economists saying its zero-COVID policy has left China behind and brought many small businesses to their knees.

The potential impact on other countries should also not be underestimated.

Price added that the virus has the potential to mutate whenever it spreads, making it “a threat to people everywhere.”

Read more: MPs warn China is ‘a significant threat to the UK on many different levels’ and dependency needs to be reined in

Chinese CDC official Xu Wenbo told reporters that new mutations would occur, but downplayed the concerns.

“The ability of new strains to evade immunity becomes stronger, more contagious,” Xu said. “But they’re less likely to be deadly. More contagious and more pathogenic strains are even less likely.”

Others are more careful.

“Every new wave of epidemics in another country brings with it the risk of new variants, and this risk increases as the epidemic grows, and the current wave in China is shaping up to be large,” said Alex Cook, vice dean of research. He saw the National University of Singapore Swee Hock School of Public Health.

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