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A health worker prepares a dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Lianyungang, in China's eastern Jiangsu province, on 21 December 2022. China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

China Hit Hard by Wave of COVID-19 Infections

After widespread protests about monthslong lockdowns and strict health and safety measures, China significantly changed its zero-COVID policy early this month. The newly reopened China has been hit hard by a spike COVID-19 cases, however, and Chinese epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said at a press conference on 17 December that China is experiencing only the first of three expected waves of COVID infections this winter, with additional spikes likely during the Lunar New Year holidays and in March.

The Chinese government says that more than 90 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, but China developed and produced its own vaccines, which have been less effective against serious COVID-caused illness and death than the mRNA vaccines used in most other countries, the BBC reported. Experts predict that China could face more than 1 million COVID-19 deaths during the next year.

COVID-19 cases in China have been on the upswing since earlier in 2022, spiking once in May with 528,432 cases and climbing again in late September to 333,000 confirmed cases. Current World Health Organization (WHO) data for the week of 12 December shows 147,643 confirmed cases and 418 deaths.

But—to much skepticism from the international health community—China is reporting very limited COVID-19 deaths. Officially, there were only five COVID deaths on 20 December, just two the day before, and none in the previous two weeks. The counting method China is using only includes deaths from people who die from respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, which goes against WHO guidance. Cases that China reports must include evidence in patients of COVID-caused lung damage, which has to be confirmed in a scan, according to the BBC. Deaths caused by underlying diseases exacerbated by COVID-19 or by extreme responses to infection (such as blood clots, heart problems, or sepsis) were not included.

These reports are undercut by queues of hearses outside crematoriums in Beijing, Reuters reported. Hospitals are under extreme pressure to care for spiking patient cases, and frontline medical workers have been told to report to work even if they have the virus themselves because of staff shortages, according to the BBC. That environment, however, puts doctors and nurses in the position of potentially infecting their patients and other staff.

The spike in cases and fears about COVID-19 led to a significant demand for fever-reducing drugs, and the price of ibuprofen quadrupled in response. Some Chinese cities started rationing sales by selling the pills individually, The New York Times reported. The antiviral drug Paxlovid sold out within hours on a popular Chinese pharmacy website. Many pharmacies do not have some of the most common fever and cold medicines after a rush of demand from patients trying to stockpile drugs. 

The spike in cases is also likely to disrupt manufacturing and supply chains across China. Reuters noted that infections are spreading to manufacturing belts, and retail and financial services businesses have already been hit hard by staff shortages. In Shanghai, schools have reverted to online learning.

But state-run media reported that workers with mild COVID symptoms can continue to go to work provided they wear a mask. The shift in messaging from government sources is extreme. While two months ago, Dr. Liang Wannian, who designed China’s zero-COVID policy, said China “cannot tolerate” another wave of mass infections, this month he declared that “the virus is much more mild now,” NPR reported.