Covid returns to China
In a recent post, I cast doubt on claims that China suffered from a Covid pandemic from mid-2020 to mid-2022, which was covered up by the government. I pointed out that something that large is almost impossible to hide. This past week provides an almost perfect illustration of that claim.
As of a few weeks ago, I did not know a single person in China that had contracted Covid. And none of the Chinese people I knew were aware of anyone else that had contracted the disease. That changed almost overnight. Since last week’s post, six Chinese people that I know (in Beijing) have now contracted Covid, and they know of many more cases. It’s obvious that China is suffering from a major pandemic. Here’s Bloomberg:
Nearly 37 million people in China may have been infected with Covid-19 on a single day this week, according to estimates from the government’s top health authority, making the country’s outbreak by far the world’s largest.
As many as 248 million people, or nearly 18% of the population, likely contracted the virus in the first 20 days of December, according to minutes from an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission held on Wednesday, confirmed with people involved in the discussions. If accurate, the infection rate would dwarf the previous daily record of about 4 million, set in January 2022.
Beijing’s swift dismantling of Covid Zero restrictions has led to the unfettered spread of the highly contagious omicron variants in a population with low levels of natural immunity. More than half the residents of Sichuan province, in China’s southwest, and the capital Beijing have been infected, according to the agency’s estimates.
Thus the reports out of China closely match my own personal knowledge of the situation. That’s why it’s so difficult to cover up a pandemic—the story would almost certainly leak out through word of mouth. If China had experienced a Covid pandemic in 2021, lots of cases of Covid would be known to friends and relatives living outside of China. That was not the case in 2021.
The recent spread of Covid through China appears to be faster than in any other country. This is likely due to two factors. First, the Chinese people were “dry tinder”, with almost no herd immunity from previous infections. Many were vaccinated, but not many had received boosters. In addition, the vaccines were of inferior quality. Second, the newest versions of Covid are much more contagious than the original virus that appeared in Wuhan at the end of 2019.
In retrospect, China’s zero Covid policy was clearly a major mistake, even if zero weight is given to human rights. At a minimum, China should have removed its Covid regulations once the vaccines were widely available. They wasted more than a year for no benefit at all. Efforts to control the virus in 2020 (prior to the vaccine) were somewhat more defensible, as they saved millions of lives.
It’s also worth noting that China did not end its zero Covid policy until after Xi Jinping was reappointed in October, an indication that politics likely played a role in delaying the inevitable.
Dec 23 2022 at 3:55pm
A thousand years ago it was possible for serious infectious agents to stay restricted to small areas, but the speed and amount of travel in our world makes this impossible. Severe restrictive barriers can hold it off for a limited amount of time, and this time can be used to prepare medical facilities, develop and stockpile medicines, and have a vaccination program. China uses a vaccine produced locally which uses inactivated virus technology. M-rna vaccines are probably better. The reported vaccination rate seems to vary; some reports say 40% of the eighty year olds, but others say 60%, and the official rate is nearly 90%.
Covid-19, SARS-CoV-2, is unstable. Every infected person produces tens of thousands viral mutants. There are 1.4 billion people in China. Variants are inevitable.
We need an alert monitor of potential pandemics. Of course, it is possible to be too alert; ebola scared us a few years ago without striking many people. I see this as a very difficult problem.
Dec 23 2022 at 5:36pm
The 40% figure probably applies to boosters, the overall vaccination rate is considerably higher.
Dec 27 2022 at 11:59am
Australia and New Zealand have proven that the mRNA vaccines are useless. Covid is spreading and everyone is vaxed and nearly everyone is boosted. Covid vaccines are a government scam intended to enrich Moderna and Pfizer.
Dec 27 2022 at 12:58pm
Isn’t it quite the opposite? Deaths are very low there, are they not?
Dec 23 2022 at 5:35pm
For good, sane, non-histrionic reports from inside China, I follow China Update, a daily 10 minutes from a young Westerner working in China (lawyer, I think) who himself has Covid right now … and Lei’s Real Talk, by a Chinese expatriate working in NYC who has family and contacts in China.
The former is very to-the-point about economic analysis, business, and international politics as it affects them — the latter is more personably about social developments, domestic politics and historical perspectives from a Chinese point of view.
They both are much more timely than general news reports — I’ve learned things from them days (and longer) before seeing the same reported elsewhere. Update in particular provides pointers to hard economic analysis sources I’d never find on my own.
One person’s opinion, FWIW.
Dec 24 2022 at 1:52am
India too had a wave in April-May 21 that was much bigger than the official numbers. It is likely that per day infections in India too reached multi-million figures.
If mRNA vaccines are so good than why US, Europe and Japan having so much infections currently while India has almost nothing and Africa never had much covid.
And about the recent Cleaveland study that showed that greater risk of reinfection in people receiving more number of vaccine doses?
Dec 24 2022 at 3:26am
China’s pivot on Covid policy could be interpreted in terms of Orwellian malice, i.e. “We are now at war with Oceania, and always have been.” I think that’s too simplistic, but I remain puzzled as to how Xi expects to manage the situation going forward. The body count is going to keep climbing in a tragic way, and could test the power of the state to a greater degree than the lockdown regime. From Xi’s perspective, perhaps the relative success of the lockdown policies proves the capacity of the state to repress any form of social unrest. Additionally, he probably calculates that the potential improvements to the economy will overwhelm the impact of the virus. Consequently, state media policy going forward will probably be along the lines of the first rule of Fight Club–which does fit the Orwellian narrative to some degree.
I largely agree with Scott’s assessment of the history. I’m also pretty sure that Xi and anyone else of importance in the CCP availed themselves of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines and boosters despite repressing their use for the general population.
Dec 24 2022 at 11:01am
In retrospect, China’s zero Covid policy was clearly a major mistake, even if zero weight is given to human rights.
Unless possibly the current strains, while more infectious, prove to be less deadly than those from 2020. Here’s hoping.
Dec 24 2022 at 11:41am
I’d expect a lower fatality rate in China than in the US, if only because East Asian countries have tended to have far lower death rates than the US (for reasons not fully understood.) In addition, while Chinese vaccines are inferior, they are still somewhat effective in preventing death. Lots of Americans died before vaccines were available.
Dec 24 2022 at 9:07pm
I’d expect a lower fatality rate in China than in the US…
Yes, Omicron clearly is less deadly than the early strains of 2020-21, and many Americans died before there were any vaccines, while those more deadly strains were prevalent.
OTOH, there weren’t 600 million Americans living on $5 a day with (lack of) health and hospital resources to match.
But it’s not a competition.
As an aside, it’s kind of looking like Fukuyama might have been right after all with his main claim in The End of History: Off of Putin’s performance in Ukraine and Xi’s with Covid and his housing market, Western liberal democratic capitalism may be being re-established as the only credible way to go.
Dec 24 2022 at 11:17pm
“Omicron clearly is less deadly than the early strains of 2020-21”
I’ve seen no evidence for that claim. Fewer are dying, but that’s mostly because almost everyone in the US already has some immunity via vaccines or previous infection. Did I miss something?
Dec 25 2022 at 8:27am
“The study reported new evidence that mortality rates were lower for infections with the omicron BA.1 subvariant than for the delta variant of concern, even after controlling for patient demographics, previous infection, and vaccination status.”
— from https://www.bmj.com/content/378/bmj.o1806
(More references available using google search term “omicron less deadly”)
Dec 25 2022 at 11:17am
Yes. The research out of SOuth Africa where omicron was first discovered shows that, ceteris paribus, it’s less deadly.
Plus, that’s how viruses tend to evolve. They become more infectious and less deadly. A virus that is too deadly tends to die out because it kills before it can effectively spread.
Dec 24 2022 at 12:17pm
“Leaked minutes from an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission on Wednesday of this week say as many as 248 million people, nearly 18% of the population, likely contracted the virus in the first 20 days of December.
“The minutes, which have not been confirmed but have been verified by [multiple sources], say that nearly 37 million people may have been infected on a single day this week, an incredible number. If accurate, it would be almost 10 times higher than the previous daily record of about 4 million from January of 2022….”
Dec 24 2022 at 4:21pm
“In retrospect, China’s zero Covid policy was clearly a major mistake, even if zero weight is given to human rights. At a minimum, China should have removed its Covid regulations once the vaccines were widely available. They wasted more than a year for no benefit at all.”
I think this is wrong, as it falls under the general category of “first, assume that we know certain things for certain” predictions. In general, lots of “illogical” human behaviour is actually a rational response to the massive uncertainty under which we all operate, all the time. As MarkW suggested above, there are a number of known variables that might have changed during that year of delay; and there are an unknown number of unknown things that might have happened.
In fact, none of those known or unknown variables did change, and China’s now going to have to go through exactly what the US went through. So with hindsight, you’re correct: China gained little or nothing with that year of delay. But I don’t think that was obvious from the outset.
Dec 25 2022 at 11:22am
It was, though. Well-established fact that lockdowns do not end pandemics, merely prolong them. In the early days of the COVID pandemic, all the public health agencies were expressly rejecting lockdown logic because the costs exceeded the benefits. It wasn’t until the CCP began locking down, coupled with the ICL model that vastly overestimated deaths, that lockdowns became accepted.
Plus, thow in the fact respitory viruses are among the most common human diseases and the existance of non-human infections made Zero-COVID not only impossible, but foolish, and you got a perfectly obvious outcome. So no, there were no assumptions about what is known. We have centuries of information.
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