Dec 20, 2022 - World

Beijing faces dilemma as COVID deaths rise

People line up for nucleic acid tests to detect COVID-19 at a public testing site on Dec. 9 in Beijing. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

People line up for nucleic acid tests to detect COVID-19 at a public testing site on Dec. 9 in Beijing. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

After years of holding the virus at bay, the Chinese government is now facing the same dilemma governments around the world have faced for the past three years: how to let people get back to normal life while preventing COVID cases from overwhelming the health care system.

Why it matters: Up to a million people in China might die from COVID next year, according to new projections from the U.S.-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

  • The institute recommends health officials in China reimpose some pandemic restrictions in order to lower the number of deaths, which is rapidly rising.

What's happening: Demand at funeral homes and crematoria has surged, according to social media posts and some reports. COVID-related deaths remain low, according to government data, but doubt is spreading on Chinese social media about official figures, Bloomberg reports.

  • Zhang Wenhong, an infectious disease doctor in China who became well known during the pandemic, has warned that Chinese hospitals will soon face their "darkest hour," per the Economist.
  • Medical wards are not yet overflowing with patients but fever clinics have seen long lines.
  • Blood banks are running low on supplies as would-be blood donors stay away due to testing positive for COVID or fear of infection.

Companies and factories are also struggling with staff shortages as many employees call in sick.

  • Some factory managers are implementing a closed-loop system that keeps workers isolated from the outside world. Others are worried they may have to close until enough workers have recovered, the Financial Times reports.
  • Case counts are so high that regular business has been disrupted and supply chains are being thrust into chaos.

The big picture: Beijing championed its zero-COVID policy as a model the world should have emulated — but dismantled it rapidly in recent weeks as the government faced pressure from Chinese citizens and the country's economy suffered.

  • Zero-COVID restrictions bought China time to ensure its population was fully vaccinated, but Chinese authorities didn't permit the widespread use of more effective but foreign-made mRNA vaccines — leaving the population both without significant natural immunity and without the best available protectionn.

Now Chinese health authorities may have to look to the approaches of other governments, many of which now have years of experience periodically loosening restrictions to allow greater freedoms, tightening back up when case counts rise and hospital beds fill up, and loosening once again when the wave subsides.

💭 My thought bubble: If deaths do spike as high as some estimates suggest, some Chinese people who suffered under the strictures and deprivations of the zero-COVID era — once viewed as necessary to preserve life — may begin to question those sacrifices, fueling further resentment against health authorities they once trusted.

Go deeper