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China’s chaotic response to surge in covid-19 cases

AFinish In the early 19th century, bold officials and a young emperor attempt to reform China’s last feudal dynasty. They made sweeping changes in education, the armed forces, and the economy to help the faltering Qing empire catch up with Japan and the Western powers. They failed. The well-known “Hundred Days Reform” was abolished by the emperor’s conservative aunt, the queen mother.

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China’s latest attempt to relax its draconian “zero coronavirus” containment measures has been so ill-fated that some have dubbed it a “seven-day reform.” They began on November 11, when the government banned excessive mass testing, “arbitrary” lockdowns and other invasive measures. Officials are demanding more precise controls to limit the impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. Shijiazhuang, a northern city of about 11 million people, no longer requires recent negative covid-19 test results from people entering public places. Other cities have also loosened restrictions, removing coronavirus testing stations. Financial markets come alive. Some analysts see Shijiazhuang’s approach as a possible harbinger of China’s full opening after nearly three years of restrictions.

In theory, the new guidelines are still in effect. But little has changed in reality. Shijiazhuang is now on lockdown and testing most of the population for the virus is underway. Several cities have recently announced mass testing campaigns and reopened testing stations. Some other cities are following the letter, not the spirit, of the new guidelines. Police have ordered bars in central Beijing to close, but no announcements have been made.Overall, one-fifth of China’s production gross domestic product Nomura believes it is now under some form of lockdown.

Triggers are no surprise. There was already an increase in covid cases when the easing was announced. It has accelerated since then. On November 23, China recorded more than 30,000 cases, the highest official record in a single day. For the first time in six months, officials are reporting the death toll from COVID-19: several elderly people with pre-existing conditions.

Even more puzzling is why central authorities think they can ask local officials to ease restrictions while expecting them to reduce cases. Yanzhong Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, said the conflicting goals had created “chaos and confusion”. This could also lead to an increase in cases.

Many Chinese are worried. “The world is inexplicably messed up, and I don’t know what to do,” said one commenter on Weibo, a Twitter-like service. Some fear the virus could wreak havoc. Riots erupted at the world’s largest iPhone factory in the central city of Zhengzhou on Nov. 22, in part because of fears of infection. But others, tired of lockdown measures, are more open to easing policies. A widely circulated article pointed out that World Cup fans in Qatar were not even wearing masks. “Are we living on a different planet?” it asked.

As cases mount, health officials are preparing for a large outbreak. On November 17, they announced plans to convert 10% of hospital beds to intensive care units (ICU)bed. They also promised to unveil a plan to increase vaccination rates among older adults (only 40% of China’s octogenarians have received a third booster shot, which would greatly reduce the risk of serious illness or death). But such projects require time and resources.China currently has less than four ICU Beds per 100,000 people. In comparison, the United States has more than 30 per 100,000 people.

China is still pursuing a strategy of isolating infected people and their close contacts. This becomes increasingly difficult as the number of cases increases. More than 1.3 million people are under medical observation, far more than during previous outbreaks (see chart). Quarantine facilities are being built rapidly, but are coming under pressure. More and more people are being asked to stay at home, supervised by exhausted community workers.

Mr Huang sees the next few weeks as critical. China is likely to contain the outbreak with its tried and tested methods of prolonged lockdowns and mass testing. But if cases rise too quickly, attempts to isolate close contacts fail and officials “may find that existing strategies are no longer effective,” he said. Whatever happens, trying to make life more comfortable while maintaining a zero-coronavirus policy seems futile.

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