Since China dramatically reversed course and loosened its zero-tolerance approach to Covid last week, Beijing has gone all out to convince the public that it can weather the potential risks of lifting restrictions and still put the world’s second-largest economy back on track.
Its once bleak prognostications have turned downright optimistic: Covid-19 is entering the “last stage” and will soon become a manageable seasonal illness, said one of China’s leading voices on the coronavirus. The virus’s spread will peak in a month, predicted another prominent Chinese epidemiologist. A top state TV news anchor declared that “we are on the road” to ending the crisis, with the latest Covid variants less dangerous and officials saying the country’s medical preparedness will protect against the most catastrophic outcomes.
Despite those assurances, China faces much uncertainty over how the coming months will play out. Information is opaque and unreliable, which will make it difficult to gauge Beijing’s handling of the coming wave of Covid infections. The government’s desire to save face after an embarrassing retreat from its hallmark pandemic policy will only muddy the picture.
Already, there are signs that China is leveraging propaganda to reinforce its message that the situation is under control. And absent a reliable flow of information, businesses and investors from outside the country are left to speculate on just how long it will take for the economy to recover.
Even the most basic question of how many people are infected with Covid in China right now is hard to answer because the government has relaxed mass testing requirements and made reporting at-home test results voluntary.
China reported 2,291 newly confirmed cases on Tuesday, a fraction of the roughly 30,000 new infections a day that the country was reporting before it lifted the mass testing requirement. Case numbers are bound to be suppressed even further after China’s National Health Commission said on Wednesday that it would stop reporting asymptomatic infections, which made up the vast majority of positive results in the past.
Understand the Situation in China
Beijing’s restrictive “zero Covid” policy pummeled China’s economy and set off mass protests that were a rare challenge to the Communist leadership.
- A Messy Pivot: The Communist Party cast aside many Covid rules after the protests, while playing down the threat of the virus. The move could prove dangerous.
- Importance of Vaccines: As the government drops its restrictions, it not only needs to convince people that the virus is nothing to fear, but also that inoculations are essential.
- A Test for Hospitals: To conserve resources for the severely ill, the government is urging residents not to seek help unless necessary. The strategy has left many confused and anxious.
The downturn in the number of reported infections belies anecdotal evidence of a surging number of positive cases and crowded hospitals with people waiting to be treated. With the change in testing policy, many cities and counties across the country are spreading the mantra of “don’t get tested unless necessary” on official social media. “The statistics are meaningless,” said Jörg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.
Some of China’s data stretches the boundaries of reason for a country with a population of 1.4 billion people. China said there had not been a single Covid-related death since it lifted pandemic restrictions six days ago. By comparison, the United States reported 469 Covid-related deaths on Tuesday alone.
Since the early months of the pandemic, virologists have raised questions about China’s official mortality figures, challenging the way that the country’s hospitals classify Covid deaths. Instead of including people who died after contracting Covid-19 in official data, as is the norm in other countries, Chinese hospitals typically attribute deaths to pre-existing or chronic illnesses, such as cancer or a heart condition, they said.
Underreporting Covid cases is not unique to China, but the country remains especially inscrutable. In reporting “severe” bouts of Covid, the government discloses only the change in the number of cases from the day before, without reporting a total figure. China said it had three more severe cases on Tuesday than on Monday.
The lack of reliable data on Covid cases also makes it hard to assess how long it will take the economy to bounce back. The global picture is not looking promising, with both the United States and Europe charting a path toward recession, hurting demand for Chinese exports, a usually dependable pillar of the global economy.
Under China’s no-holds-barred Covid policy, the constant threat of lockdowns and unpredictable quarantines also kept shoppers out of stores, tethered travelers to their homes and discouraged diners from eating out for the better part of three years. But even if customers are now allowed to go out freely, there is still a great deal of trepidation about what lies ahead.
Zheng Jingrong, a shop owner who sells handmade imported clothes in Beijing, said she hadn’t bothered to reopen her store yet because there were still no customers.
“My feeling now is that everyone is afraid of testing positive, and those who are timid dare not go out,” she said. Relaxing the country’s Covid rules is a good first step, but the government needs to do more to support ordinary people and small businesses, Ms. Zheng said, adding that “nothing is certain at the moment.”
Ting Lu, chief China economist for Nomura, a Japanese brokerage, said he wasn’t “too optimistic” about a sharp recovery in the Chinese economy, because he expects continued disruptions from an overwhelmed health care system and a surge in infections. He added that he expected pent-up demand in the economy to be “relatively weak” next year after three years of lockdowns depleted the finances of many Chinese households.
Part of the uncertainty hanging over how China will emerge from “zero Covid” is that no country of this size has pivoted this quickly, this drastically — shifting seemingly overnight from full-on assault against Covid to learning to live with the virus. Long-established rules are changing by the day.
As of last week, asymptomatic or light cases no longer required hospital stays. All restrictions on purchasing flu and pain relief medication were also lifted, igniting a run on fever pills and even some traditional Chinese medicines. On Tuesday, China also disabled a travel tracking app, one of many smartphone apps that the government used to keep tabs on the whereabouts of Chinese citizens to assess their Covid risk.
Two months ago, before throngs of people took to the streets to protest the government’s draconian Covid policies, Xi Jinping, China’s leader, said Covid posed such a grave public health risk that fighting the virus required an “all-out war.”
“It’s amazing how in two weeks the entire control system has evaporated,” Mr. Wuttke said. “What does this do to business? I don’t know.”
Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said when Australia and New Zealand abandoned their zero-Covid ambitions last year, they were able to do so somewhat successfully because they had implemented “effective vaccination programs with effective vaccines.”
However, in the case of China, both of those factors are in doubt. In China, roughly two-thirds of people over 60 and only 40 percent of people over 80 have received a booster shot. The World Health Organization has said the boosters are critical when it comes to China’s homegrown vaccines, which use inactivated virus and are shown to be less effective than foreign alternatives that use newer mRNA technology.
On Wednesday, China’s health regulator said it was rolling out a second vaccine booster for high-risk groups and people over 60.
Without extensive coverage and a highly effective vaccine, there is the “potential for a very big public health problem,” Mr. Woolhouse said.
For Zhu Yan, who owns a hostel by Qionghai Lake, a tourist destination in Sichuan Province, the Covid restrictions had damaged her business. She said there were still no visitors because people are afraid of contracting the virus. While it may take some time for the economy and her business to recover, she said she was at least feeling hopeful again.
Ms. Zhu, 40, said she was hoping that China could reach herd immunity so that life could return to normal. In fact, she hopes to test positive soon because she figures it is better to get Covid early on.
“It is impossible to lock everyone up at home and lock them up forever, right?” Ms. Zhu said. “What should come will come, you can’t escape. You have to take this path, and everyone has to take this step, so that China can get on with normal work and life.”
John Liu contributed reporting.