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Chinese citizens face new outbreak with zero-COVID dropped

William Yang Taipei
December 22, 2022

China is grappling with a new wave of COVID-19 after the government lifted its strict anti-pandemic measures. Some citizens are shocked by the sudden change while others welcome it with a sigh of relief.

Beijing residents line up to receive a booster COVID-19 vaccine
Chinese authorities believe it would take two to four months for the country to get out of the current coronavirus outbreakImage: REUTERS TV via REUTERS

Weeks after China gave up its zero-COVID strategy, the country is witnessing a new outbreak. Concerned citizens are rushing to the pharmacies to buy medicine, while crematoriums across China struggle to cope with the rising number of deaths.

This week, Chinese authorities announced another change —  they would narrow the definition of COVID-19 deaths by only including deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure.

Meanwhile, people are lining up at "fever clinics" in many Chinese cities and many citizens are isolating at home. Witnesses told DW that major cities in China have been "crazy quiet" over the last few weeks.

"I took the subway last Sunday to go play football and there were only foreigners," said David, a non-Chinese national living in Guangzhou. "I went to the shopping district last Friday and there was no one. The only people visible were the delivery drivers. I have not seen it like this since 2020."

Even Chinese officials admit it is hard for them to keep track of the outbreak at this point, a development also noted by the World Health Organization.

"In China, what's been reported is relatively low numbers of cases in ICUs, but anecdotally ICUs are filling up," said Mike Ryan, the emergencies director for WHO. "I wouldn't like to say that China is actively not telling us what's going on. I think they're behind the curve." 

People still afraid of forced quarantine

While schools in China's commercial capital of Shanghai have moved courses online, authorities in several cities, including Guiyang and Chongqing, are urging Chinese citizens with mild symptoms to return to work this week.

But the memories of people being taken into centralized quarantine facilities are still fresh in people's minds. Liu, a Chinese citizen, told DW many people refuse to go back to the office.

"Taking public transportation or going to work now are very scary things," she said. "The first thing I do after getting home now is to test myself and see whether I've been infected. If the result remains negative, I'll continue to wait for the day when I'm tested positive."

With less medicine available in pharmacies to treat COVID symptoms, drugs are growing more expensive online and many people living in China are reaching out to family members or friends abroad.

"Some Chinese people try to buy up fever-reducing medications and re-sell them at a price that's two or three times higher online,” said a Chinese citizen surnamed Chu.

To cope with the shortage, several Chinese cities have imposed limits on the number of drugs each person can buy. In Beijing and the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai, local authorities have divided fever medications from large packages into individual tablets for sale.

Beijing focused on lockdowns, 'dragged its feet' on vaccination

Chinese authorities believe it would take two to four months for the country to get out of the current outbreak.

Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University in the US, says many experts saw the outbreak coming even before Beijing decided to dismantle its zero-COVID strategy. The government's focus on anti-pandemic measures has prevented China from boosting vaccination rates among vulnerable groups.

"China dragged its feet and ended up with an insufficient vaccination rate for the elderly," he told DW. "And when they are overly reliant on the zero-COVID strategy, they fail to ensure the capacity of its medical system is sufficient while lacking enough natural immunity for its population. They thought they could contain the spread of the omicron variant, but they can't achieve that goal."

The ongoing outbreak prompted concerns of a new, more dangerous coronavirus variant emerging and interfering with the global efforts to end the pandemic. But Chi is not overly worried.

"Each of the new subvariant that has developed from omicron this year has been more infectious but not more lethal, so I think it's less likely for the current outbreak in China to create a new variant that's more lethal," he told DW. "But if China fails to contain the outbreak, it will have an impact on the global economy."

Anger over zero-COVID U-turn

The Chinese government's sudden dismantling of the zero-COVID regime and the widespread outbreak across the country that followed have prompted anger and frustration among some Chinese citizens. Over the last few days, hundreds of social media users rushed to the account of Dr. Li Wenliang, the deceased coronavirus whistleblower, to express their frustration with the government's sudden U-turn.

"I've also tested positive, and we have a one-month-old baby at home, but the government doesn't care about the people," wrote one Chinese netizen under Li's Weibo account. "The government's claim that the country is opening up in an orderly fashion is nonsense. The one-size-fits-all policy is the reality."

Ku, who lives in Beijing, told DW that she was shocked to see how little preparation the Chinese government had done before deciding to lift most of its anti-pandemic measures. "The government's approach is so irresponsible, and I don't think they treat Chinese people like human beings," she said.

The Chinese national noted that this lack of preparation could further erode the people's trust in the government.

"When the government thinks the zero-COVID strategy fits its interests, they stick to the policy. But when they realize the Chinese economy is in deep trouble, they decide to open up without considering the Chinese people's needs. The way they implement these policies are like elementary school children playing make-believe games," Ku added.

At the same time, there are those who celebrate the end of the zero-COVID policy. "A return to normalcy is long overdue, and there would have been another exodus if things hadn't changed," said Guangzhou resident David.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic