- China has declared a “major and decisive victory” in its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
- The ruling Communist Party’s top decision-making body made the assessment during a closed-door meeting.
- The years-long policy had generated widespread discontent – including rare nationwide protests.
The swift rollback of stringent disease controls sparked a surge in cases that saw hospitals overwhelmed and people scrambling for basic medicines. But the outbreak appears to have subsided in intensity in recent weeks, with official figures showing visits to fever clinics returning to levels below those of the period before restrictions were lifted after dropping from a peak in late December.
Since ending zero-Covid, China has officially recorded more than 80,000 fatalities – a figure that counts people who were tested for Covid-19 and died in hospital but excludes deaths that went untested or those who died at home during the surge of the virus. Those excluded could be a sizable group, experts say, as testing stalled and many patients were likely to have avoided hospitals.
“There are still many questions about the death toll in China due to Covid – it might be useful if they could release more information, particularly about the all-cause deaths compared to the pre-Covid years,” said virologist Jin Dongyan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biomedical Sciences. China has also been criticized by the World Health Organization for its limited data transparency during the outbreak, including its earlier and more narrow definition of a Covid-19 death, which Chinese health officials updated in January.
Chinese health authorities stopped releasing figures for so-called asymptomatic cases nationwide late last year, as they dismantled the countries’ extensive Covid-19 mass testing apparatus and allowed people to test and recover at home. Providing a more complete picture of the outbreak – and the death toll – may not suit the government’s interests of reassuring the public about their handling of the virus, according to Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
“People’s lives are returning to normal, and the viral wave comes to an end, so that kind of uncertainty (about the outbreak) is no longer there, and there is a need to reconcile the contradictory narrative, the credibility crisis that the abrupt policy U-turn created,” Huang said, referring to the shift in official tone as China swiftly adjusted from warning about the dangers of the virus and the need to contain it, to allowing it to spread. This is the perfect time to say that the outcome justified the decision.
But even as signs indicate that China’s population has widespread natural immunity, as in other countries, that does not mean the virus is gone or that China’s health care systems are prepared for potential future surges driven by potential new variants, experts say. The Politburo Standing Committee referenced the need to continue to bolster health care in its meeting, according to the Xinhua summary, which said the body “urged all localities and departments to optimize related mechanisms and measures, strengthen the medical service system,” and called for planning for the next phase of vaccinations and enhancing medical supplies.
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