Ignoring experts, sudden zero-COVID exit cost lives
When China suddenly scrapped onerous zero-COVID measures in December, the country wasn’t ready for a massive onslaught of cases. Hospitals turned away ambulances, crematoriums burned bodies around the clock, and relatives hauled dead loved ones to warehouses for lack of storage space.
Chinese state media claimed that the decision to open up was based on “scientific analysis and shrewd calculation”, and “by no means impulsive”. But in reality, China’s ruling Communist Party ignored repeated efforts by top medical experts to kick-start exit plans until it was too late, the AP found.
Instead, the reopening came suddenly at the onset of winter, when the virus spreads most easily. Many older people weren’t vaccinated, pharmacies lacked antivirals, and hospitals didn’t have adequate supplies or staff — leading to as many as hundreds of thousands of deaths that could have been avoided, according to academic modeling, more than 20 interviews with current and former Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) employees, experts and government advisers, and internal reports and directives obtained by the AP.
“If they had a real plan to exit earlier, so many things could have been avoided,” said Zhang Zuo-Feng, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Many deaths could have been prevented.”
For two years, China stood out for its tough but successful controls against the virus, credited with saving millions of lives as other countries struggled with stop-and-start lockdowns. But with the emergence of the highly infectious Omicron variant in late 2021, many of China’s top medical experts and officials worried that zero-COVID was unsustainable.
In late 2021, China’s leaders began discussing how to lift restrictions. As early as March 2022, top medical experts submitted detailed proposals to prepare for a gradual exit to the State Council, China’s cabinet.
But discussions were silenced after an outbreak the same month in Shanghai, which prompted Chinese leader Xi Jinping to lock the city down. Zero-COVID had become a point of national pride, and Beijing’s crackdown on dissent, under Xi, had made scientists reluctant to speak out against the party line.
By the time the Shanghai outbreak was under control, China was months away from the 20th Party Congress, the country’s most important political meeting in a decade, making reopening politically difficult. So the country stuck to mass testing and quarantining millions of people, even as Omicron evaded increasingly draconian controls.