Two years of pandemic in China: a story without end
Say the maxim that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Two years after the appearance of the coronavirus that took over the planet from China, it has returned to its origin in the form of the omicron variant. A last verse that highlights how its zero tolerance strategy has placed the Asian giant on a path opposite to that of the international community, with substantial political causes and worrying consequences before the verses yet to come.
Two dissonant notions coexist when evaluating those first days. On the one hand, the perhaps unsolvable mystery about the origin of the virus, the initial cover-up by the regional authorities and the slowness of the leadership of the Communist Party in sounding the alarm
On the other, the closure of Wuhan with which China bought time, an opportunity to anticipate the imminent catastrophe that other countries wasted. The cost of that transaction was paid by the eleven million inhabitants of the city and, in particular, by some health workers who were facing without means or rest a mysterious ailment discovered just two weeks before. Given the saturation of the hospitals, the sick were ordered to stay at home, so entire families were infected and died without medical assistance. The province of Hubei, of which Wuhan is the capital, accumulates 4,512 of the 4,636 deaths (97%) that the official figures register to date. The actual death toll represents a second mystery.
This measure worked as a firewall, minimizing the spread of the pandemic throughout the rest of the territory. Beyond the doubts about government data, the streets do not lie: relative normality has prevailed in China since March 2020. When the Wuhan confinement came to an end after two and a half months, the authorities had already put in place the mechanisms necessary to implement its ambitious “Covid zero” policy»: The Asian giant was not going to live with the pathogen like most Western countries, but would act on each positive to nip the root transmission. This has been possible thanks to an exhaustive protocol based on four fundamental premises.
An isolated power
The closure of borders is the starting point. If the virus has not been present in China, it has been, to a large extent, because it has cut off its communications with the rest of the world.
Only 500 international flights will land this week, compared to 10,000 two years ago. Airports like Pudong in Shanghai, once one of the busiest gateways, have now become huge empty buildings reduced to a single corridor that leads new arrivals to hotels designated by the authorities where they will serve up to three weeks of quarantine.
This isolation also has important political derivatives. The last official trip Xi Jinping outside the country – to Myanmar – dates from January 2020, and has not held personal meetings with foreign leaders since a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Arif Alvi in March of that same year. Since then, all his interventions at international summits and events have been telematic.
There are no signs that this trend will change in the short term, with the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics imminent in two weeks; the celebration of the Party Congress in October, a meeting in which Xi will begin a historic third term that will consecrate him as the most powerful leader since Mao; and the annual assembly of the legislative apparatus in March 2023. Given the progressive voluntary marginalization of the emerging power, it is inevitable to ask what world China will find when it finally opens its doors, and vice versa.
The following points in its prevention strategy consist of tracking through digital tools, together with massive tests and selective confinements before each outbreak; more frequent as the country faces new mutations. China has thus managed to extinguish several outbreaks of the Delta variant, the most virulent of all of them located in Xi’an – the largest population to lock down to date – whose 13 million inhabitants are serving a month of general quarantine. Until Omicron appeared.
China last week identified the first local transmission in the port city of Tianjin. Hours later, another two appeared in Anyang, a town in Henan province, 500 kilometers to the southwest. The common link was a student who traveled from one point to another at the end of December. According to official figures, the variant has not caused an explosion of cases as in other countries; something strange given the time elapsed between the first contagion and its detection, more than a week. As the analyst scathingly pointed out Bill Bishop in his newsletter ‘Sinocism’, “Omicron appears to behave differently in China.”
The Asian giant registers these days the highest number of active cases since the outbreak of the pandemic: up to nine locations, including the capital Beijing, have identified the mutation and many others are fighting delta outbreaks. The fact that the government has managed to keep each new outbreak under control should not lead one to assume that this will always be the case.
science and propaganda
The arrival of Ómicron greatly worries the authorities, as recent studies suggest that Chinese vaccines would only provide slight protection against this variant.
This is the case, for example, of a study carried out by the Department of Microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, according to which “most people do not produce sufficient levels of serum antibodies after receiving two doses.” Its authors have declined ABC’s proposal to comment on their controversial findings.
From the outset, China opted to develop its own vaccines against Covid, an action motivated both by the need to ensure supply and by the desire to emit an image of self-sufficiency. Sinovac and Sinopharm solutions have been administered to 1.2 billion of their 1.4 billion citizens (85%), and inoculation of a third booster dose has already begun. In addition, the country has sold 1,600 million syringes and donated another 165 million, according to data from the specialized consulting firm Bridge. However, both vaccines are inactivated and, therefore, less effective than the Western ones, which use the new messenger RNA technique. The decision not to import foreign vaccines shows how, in certain areas, propagandistic calculations take precedence over scientific ones.
The control of the pandemic has become a central issue for the political legitimacy of the Communist Party. The disaster that at one point came to be labeled “the Chinese Chernobyl” has not destabilized the regime, quite the contrary: it has strengthened it.
The course of events has finished convincing the leadership of the Communist Party and the majority of the population of the superiority of their model against the chaos of Western democracies. The Government, likewise, has resorted to disinformation to wash away any blame.
Starting by insinuating that the origin of the virus would not be in Wuhan, but in a United States military laboratory. Then, blaming the successive outbreaks on the importation of frozen products, episodes that have not been reproduced in countries where these are common and the pandemic was also under control, such as New Zealand or Taiwan. The latest example has taken place this week: before the appearance of the first case of Ómicron in Beijing, the authorities have pointed out that the patient had received international mail from Canada. These efforts to rewrite history on the fly do not penetrate beyond its borders, but in a captive domestic audience of the official media.
Meanwhile, the Omicron variant spreads throughout the world. The lesser severity of its effects added to the shielding of the vaccines results in a hybrid immunity that invites us to think that, although it is a consequence of the inability to stop it, this new wave could be the last. The end of the pandemic may be in sight. Not so in China, which has been left unprotected under the weight of its shield. The Communist Party cannot reverse a closed model without compromising its stability, both health and political. Here, two years later, the story and its rhymes are still not over.