Protests against China's strict zero-Covid restrictions and harsh lockdowns erupted in cities across the country this week as official infections soared to record levels—the accuracy of government figures is questionable and cases are likely much higher—figures that would mark one of the United States' very best weeks of the pandemic but which pose a dire big challenge for Beijing its unrelenting pursuit of an increasingly unsustainable policy of zero-Covid.
China has reported 5,233 Covid deaths and around 1.6 million confirmed infections since the pandemic began, according to government data collated by Our World In Data, recording more than 40,000 new cases in a single day for the first time, a probable underestimate based on possibly inaccurate government reporting .
If the U.S. were to report similar numbers every day for a week it would be one of the country's very best weeks throughout the entire pandemic, with the country reporting more than 280,000 cases (an average of 40,000 a day) in 105 weeks out of 149 the CDC makes data available for.
For the world's most populous country of more than 1.4 billion people, around 18% of the human population , China's figures make up a disproportionately minute fraction of global totals , representing less than 0.1% of Covid deaths and around 0.25% of confirmed cases.
China, known to send entire cities into lockdown after finding a handful of cases, has recorded fewer infections than many places a fraction of its size, including New Zealand, Ireland, Georgia, Jordan, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong and on seven different occasions the U.S. has reported more cases China in the space of a week.
By contrast, nearly double that number died this November in the U.S.—which represents 4% of the global population but counts around 16% of recorded global Covid deaths—and the majority of states have individually reported more Covid deaths than the whole of China.
Within weeks of the virus' arrival, the U.S. had already raced past China's current death toll and on 79 separate occasions the country has reported more Covid deaths in the span of a week than China has reported since the pandemic began, according to CDC data, often exceeding it by many times.
China's reported per capita death rate—3.67 deaths per 1 million people—is the lowest of any country in the world barring a handful of exceptions. This includes Turkmenistan, which still dubiously asserts it has not been visited by the virus, North Korea, which has limited testing capacity and a penchant for disseminating inaccurate information that cannot be independently verified, Burundi, which has very limited testing capacity, and a handful of very small states like the Vatican and Tuvalu.
Waves of protests spread across China this week as people took to the streets over Beijing's strict Covid-19 restrictions. The demonstrations mark one of biggest displays of civil unrest in mainland China for decades and while protests against the pandemic rules have not been particularly uncommon , it is exceptionally rare in China for the public to openly oppose the communist government and President Xi Jinping on this kind of scale. The unrest comes amid record high Covid cases in China, which have soared to around 40,000 a day despite the strict curbs that have managed to contain the virus throughout most of the pandemic. The death of 10 people in an apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi last week—many claim Covid restrictions prevented people from escaping or help from arriving on time—is one of the key triggers for recent unrest. Authorities deny the restrictions had anything to do with the deaths.
Protests are targeting China's zero-Covid policy, the guiding light directing Beijing's pandemic response on which Xi has staked a significant amount of political capital. Zero-covid, more fully referred to as "dynamic zero Covid," aims to stamp out the virus entirely. China is the only major country still pursuing this approach. Unlike policies adopted by most other countries, it offers no room for compromise or for learning to manage and live with the virus. Authorities have pursued zero-Covid in an unrelenting and unyielding manner, locking down entire cities over a handful of cases and introducing widespread compulsory testing if any are found. There are reports of people being unable to leave residences at all—even during earthquakes —being monitored by guards and drones and accounts of food shortages and people fleeing stores and factories to avoid being kept inside. The accuracy and veracity of China's Covid statistics has been repeatedly called into question during the pandemic and they likely hide the true impact of Covid. Beijing has gone months, even a full year, without reporting a single death, for example, and the country has an improbably low number of deaths considering the number of infections.
What To Watch For
Officials have doggedly defended the zero-Covid strategy over the years and no matter how unsustainable the policy becomes there is no clear exit away from it open to China. Eradication is the only natural end point for zero-Covid, which most experts now believe to be an unlikely or very distant prospect. Lifting or easing restrictions and learning to live with the virus would inevitably entail the virus spreading and there would need to be high levels of immunity among at-risk groups to prevent death on a massive scale. Unfortunately, China has not made wise use of the time it bought with strict lockdowns —which are designed as a temporary public health measure to stall while more durable strategies like vaccination are implemented—and large numbers of elderly are unvaccinated. China's homegrown vaccines are also of questionable quality and its healthcare system would struggle to cope with large outbreaks. In the wake of the protests, however, officials have started to show signs they may be reconsidering their strategy and the language used by officials this week is markedly softer than previously used.
Three years of zero-Covid has undoubtedly saved many lives, but with poor vaccination rates, lackluster shots, little natural immunity from previous waves of infection and fast-spreading variants like omicron, abandoning zero-Covid now will likely cost China dearly. Allowing the virus to spread now, particularly with lower levels of immunity in at-risk groups like the elderly, could create a " tsunami " of cases that could overwhelm hospitals and kill more than 1 million, experts warn. Research from health analytics firm Airfinity predicts as many as 2.1 million will die if the policy is lifted.
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