China's "First" COVID Wave Passes?
Has China Endured The Initial Phase Of Its Surreal COVID Epidemic?
If we take the corporate media reporting at face value (a big “if”), China is just about through with its “first wave” of COVID-19 infections after dropping the Zero COVID policy.
The problem with taking the reporting at face value is the numbers are simply too fantastical and too extreme—starting with the claim that 80% of China has now been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The possibility of a big Covid-19 rebound in China over the next two or three months is remote as 80% of people have been infected, a prominent government scientist said on Saturday.
The mass movement of people during the ongoing Lunar New Year holiday period may spread the pandemic, boosting infections in some areas, but a second Covid wave is unlikely in the near term, Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on the Weibo social media platform.
80% of China’s 1.4 billion people have been exposed to and infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or so we are supposed to believe. However, if that percentage is accurate, it makes China the country with by far the worst COVID-19 outbreak on record, at least in terms of number of cases and rate of community spread.
To put the outbreak in a proper chronological context, we must remember that the outbreak began in early November, when cases first began to rise and Zero COVID lockdowns were attempted yet again.
What followed was a rising wave of protests against the lockdowns, which culminated in the CCP abruptly ending Zero COVID roughly a month into the outbreak.
We can accurately say, therefore, that China is approaching the end of the third month of this outbreak.
While we cannot accurately say anything about China’s actual data—either because we do not have the data or dare not trust it—we can make some comparisons to other countries, including the United States, to assess how much credibility to assign to the reported numbers coming out of China.
Straight away, however, such a comparison leads immediately into raised eyebrows and question marks, for while China is claiming COVID has spread to 80% of its population since early November, no other country has come even close to that level of infection even after three years of pandemic.
Simple mathematics tells us that an 80% level of infection would be 800,000 cases per million people, which is approximately 20% higher than Austria’s ~643,410 cases per million achieved after three years.
That would be a more remarkable spread of the disease within the past 12 weeks than even seen in Taiwan and Hong Kong, which started late on accumulating cases but quickly caught up and surpassed the United States. Granted, the Omicron strains of the virus are deemed to be considerably more transmissible than either original Wuhan strain or the subsequent Delta strains, but for China to have that rate of spread with Omicron puts it several orders of magnitude above Austria, which during its Omicron outbreak period early last year saw approximately 33.7% of the population infected (from 9.26% to 42.98%).
Based on the genome sequences submitted by China into the GISAID database, the current outbreak is entirely driven by Omicron subvariants.
The 80% claim requires us to accept that Omicron is more than twice as contagious inside China than outside China—a claim which is not merely difficult to accept, but impossible to accept, because that flies in the face of the CDC’s data on infection and death rates by ethnicity.
In the United States, at least, the frequency of SARS-CoV-2 infection among Asians after three years of pandemic is roughly 76% of their proportion within the US population as a whole, as opposed to the 89% frequency among the white, non-Hispanic demographic. Thus, based on the US experience of COVID, the virus should spread more slowly among Asian populations as opposed to European and non-Hispanic populations.
China’s experience is the polar opposite of what “should” be happening.
Nor does the data become any more credible or easy to accept when we focus on COVID deaths.
According to China’s health authorities, roughly 60,000 people died between December 8 and January 12, either with COVID or explicitly from COVID.
According to a National Health Commission (NHC) official, China recorded 59,938 COVID-related deaths between Dec 8, 2022, and Jan 12.
An additional 12,500 deaths are being recognized by China’s CDC for the subsequent week (January 13-19).
There were 12,658 Covid-linked deaths at hospitals between Jan. 13-19, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement dated Saturday. The country reported 59,938 such deaths between Dec. 8 and Jan. 12.
While this is a dramatic increase from previous official death figures for China, against the backdrop of a rate of spread that is supposed to have reached 80% of the population in approximately the same period it is far too low.
After three years of pandemic, the United States has a case fatality rate among COVID cases of 1.08%.
If we accept the 80% infection rate as valid, China has had in this current outbreak roughly 1.12 billion cases (80% of 1.4 billion people). Applying a 1.08% case fatality rate yields over 12 million deaths, or 200 times the number reported by China’s NHC.
Even if we reject the 80% infection rate in favor of a rate more in line with what has been observed in other countries—e.g., Austria’s 33.7% infection rate during their big Omicron outbreak—that still yields over 5 million deaths out of 471,800,000 cases.
While we cannot say with any degree of confidence what the actual COVID case count is in China, nor the actual death toll, it seems highly unlikely that 72,500 is even a reasonable approximation of the number of deaths. Whatever the actual number is, it is almost certainly considerably higher than 72,500.
That far more than 72,500 have succumbed to the virus in China is further supported by the significant increase in demand for funerary services and cremations, so much so that funeral parlors and crematoria are having to purchase additional supplies and equipment just to keep up.
A funeral parlour in the Chinese city of Shantou published a tender recently for an "emergency purchase" of two cremation ovens, according to a government procurement database, one of several indications of COVID-19's deadly toll.
A funeral service centre in the Sichuan province city of Zigong explained the purchase of 196,230L of diesel, a 40 per cent increase from its annual average, by noting its supply was "almost exhausted".
While funeral parlor purchase requests do not confirm any specific causes of death, that funeral parlors in China are facing a greatly increased workload indicates there is significant excess death in China at the moment, and with a COVID outbreak ongoing, ascribing that excess death to COVID is not at all unreasonable.
What is unreasonable is accepting China’s 80% infection rate figure. For a disease to spread that rapidly almost necessitates a population not doing anything to mitigate disease spread—no extra hand hygiene, no extra social distancing, no extra precautions, period. That is a difficult presumption to sustain for China, because, according to the media reporting, people in at least Beijing have often opted to continue as if the lockdown protocols were still in place—remaining housebound, practicing extreme social distancing, et cetera.
Given the reported shortages of medical supplies and antivirals within China, such non-pharmaceutical responses are not at all unreasonable. People are having to devise their own health protection strategy, without much input from the CCP or Xi Jinping.
Left to fend for herself after China abruptly ended the world’s strictest Covid restrictions, 31-year-old Share Xue and her daughter found themselves with 40C (104F) fevers and an expired bottle of Motrin.
“I didn’t think it would be that difficult to get drugs,” she said from the southern city of Guangzhou, recalling how she had expected the government to take charge and give out medicine during her illness last month. With hospitals overwhelmed, she turned to social media instead — and found an app on WeChat facilitating donations to those in need.
If the reporting is accurate, the COVID outbreak is forcing Chinese citizens to do something they have not had to do literally for generations—act independently of the Beijing government.
“Frustrated citizens feel that they have been jerked 180 degrees from tightly patrolled Zero Covid society to fending for themselves in a viral jungle,” said Diana Fu, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “It has become evident that people are serving the people, not the party serving the people.”
The shortages of even basic over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen is also showing the Chinese people how little control the CCP actually has over the economy.
Despite the official inflation rate in China remaining below 3% since April of 2020, during the Wuhan lockdown, there are reports of people paying the equivalent of hundreds and even thousands of dollars for Paxlovid.
One man in Hainan province said he paid nearly $3,000 for two boxes of Paxlovid, which is a combination of two drugs and reduced the risk of hospitalization by 90% in clinical trials. Boxes are sold online for the equivalent of about $320 U.S. dollars but are snapped up quickly.
Viruses are always going to virus, and drug prices are always going to move accordingly, without regard to any inflation-fighting regime adopted by a country’s government.
Nor is it just pharmaceuticals that are in short supply. One constant refrain in all the reporting since Zero COVID was ended is the degree to which China’s hospitals are overwhelmed by a sudden influx of patients to the ER.
“Our forecast estimates a significant burden on China’s health care system for the next fortnight,” Dr. Matt Linley, Airfinity’s analytics director, said, “and it is likely that many treatable patients could die due to overcrowded hospitals and lack of care.”
NBC News witnessed chaotic scenes in overcrowded hospitals in Shanghai, China’s financial center and most populous city at 26 million people. Less than a year after a grueling two-month lockdown in an effort to stamp out the virus, the city is now experiencing the consequences of letting it loose.
Yet it’s not merely the facilities that are being overwhelmed. China’s healthcare workers—the doctors and nurses essential to treating those with severe disease—are facing long shifts often at reduced pay.
Already overwhelmed by the surge of infections after Beijing’s abrupt shift from its zero-Covid policy, doctors and nurses in some Chinese public hospitals are facing pay cuts or salary delays that have hammered morale.
Dr Zhou, a surgeon at a hospital in a large southern city, said he has not been paid for three months following the recent influx of Covid-19 patients.
The lack of pay for doctors and nurses is in turns the most alarming and the most intriguing aspect of the stresses currently being applied to the Chinese healthcare system—alarming because it calls into question the quality of care that can be delivered under such circumstances, and intriguing because it raises the probability for a simple explanation as to why China simply dropped the Zero COVID protocols.
Zero COVID quite likely was abandoned because China is effectively broke, and could not pay for Zero COVID any more.
This is especially true of local governments, on whose narrow shoulders Xi Jinping laid the burden of paying for Zero COVID, and whose revenues have dropped even as their expenditures have ballooned.
According to China’s Ministry of Finance, local general public revenue for the first 11 months of last year was 10 trillion yuan, down by 3 per cent from the previous year, while local public expenditure was 19.6 trillion yuan, up by 6.2 per cent year on year.
Keep in mind that China’s economy was already reeling from the bursting of their housing bubble.
More importantly, the local government financing vehicles (LGFVs) by which China’s many municipalities fund infrastructure projects and other operations, are at risk of credit default as China’s property crisis continues to unfold.
After replacing builders as the biggest buyers of land earlier this year, the nation’s so-called local government financing vehicles, or LGFVs, have now become the main purchasers of half-finished projects of defaulters including China Evergrande Group. Their increasing involvement in real estate has analysts raising red flags.
Moody’s Investors Service says that could weigh on the credit profile of these state funding agencies. While no LGFV has defaulted in the current cycle, Bloomberg Economics isn’t ruling out one ahead. Though China’s loosened monetary policy has largely pushed onshore borrowing costs to the lowest in years including for most LGFVs, average credit spreads on some of the worst-performing LGFV local bonds have almost doubled since mid-January to nearly 10 percentage points.
Such direct rescue efforts and tighter ties to property are raising new concerns over the health of the weakest links in China’s state sector, as a record housing slump and surging Covid-induced expenditures squeeze the already strained finances of companies reliant on government funding. A potential default could cause another convulsion in a market, where LGFVs’ 11.6 trillion yuan ($1.6 trillion) of notes account for about a third of China’s local corporate bonds.
If doctors and nurses can no longer be paid on time, given China’s dire economic circumstances that is a pretty good indication that China’s local governments are effectively broke, and would have required financial assistance from Beijing in order to sustain Zero COVID.
That Beijing pushed the costs of Zero COVID down to the local level is an indication of the financial health of the national government: Beijing is broke.
If, as the media are reporting, China’s “first” COVID wave sans Zero COVID has indeed passed, that will be a blessing to China. The country can begin to rebuild its economy, and people can find the time and the space to mourn the dead.
Yet it must also be acknowledged that if just half of the media reporting on China’s COVID outbreak is accurate, if just half of what has been said has actually transpired, China’s social infrastructures have been turned upside down, and the full ramifications of that will not be known for some time.
Whether by accident or on purpose, China has gone from one extreme to the other, from providing maximum defensive effort against COVID to providing no defensive effort on COVID.
Whether by accident or on purpose, China has gone from seemingly little or no death from COVID to extraordinary death—if not from COVID than from “something.”
This much is certain: China has gone from thinking it could manage COVID to being managed if not manhandled by COVID. After all the lockdowns, after all the isolations and quarantines and government brutality, the virus still managed to virus.
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