China's zero-Covid policy is history. As feared, the number of infections is shooting through the roof. Hospitals and crematoria are overwhelmed. In order to avoid new waves of protests, the government will now pull out all the stops, a China expert expects.
People in China stand in line in front of the hospitals for hours in the cold. Inside, people lie close together, some on the floor, they are ventilated with oxygen masks. The crematoria can't keep up either. In front of the pharmacies - long queues. But the shelves have long since been bought empty. Many medicines for colds or fevers and also corona tests are out of stock.
Corona has hit China with full force. There are no official figures on how many people are infected. The health authorities have lost track. The mass tests are abolished. PCR tests are no longer mandatory. And the state Corona app has been switched off since mid-December.
In Beijing alone, it is estimated that more than every second person is infected with the corona virus. That would be over ten million people. The number of deaths is similarly vague. Officially, around 5,000 deaths have been reported in China - but there are likely to be many, many more.
At the beginning of December, China suddenly overturned its tough zero-tolerance policy. It's a "huge experiment," says Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer in the ntv podcast "Learned something again." He is director of the China Center Tübingen and one of the most important sinologists in Germany. "A lot of people, even in remote areas of China, may be confronted with this virus for the first time. We don't know how the antibody status of villagers over 70 somewhere in western China will deal with it," says the China expert. The risks cannot be overlooked.
There had been angry protests shortly before. Workers, students, street vendors - hundreds of people across the country protested against the strict corona measures and President Xi Jinping. The police brutally suppressed the demonstrations.
This was followed by the first cautious loosening. First, quarantine and testing requirements were relaxed or abolished entirely, the mass lockdowns ended and finally the end of Zero Covid was decided. The reason: the infections with the new Omikron variants are no longer so difficult.
According to the WHO, the truth is that even the strict controls could no longer stop the contagious corona variants anyway.
The government's change of heart came as little surprise to Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer. The economy put the pressure on. Zero-Covid has put an extreme strain on her. "It became apparent that this zero-Covid policy was actually no longer sustainable." That was clear to many. "In retrospect, one could almost go so far as to make the bold claim and say that the protests were downright help for the government. The government now had to react and it has reacted," says Schmidt-Glintzer in the podcast.
After that, what experts had long feared happened. Chinese hospitals are literally being flooded with infected people. There is not enough of everything: beds, medicines, blood supplies, health workers. The infected patients infect the doctors and nurses. The clinics don't have enough money to take in more patients. Instead of hospitals, quarantine camps have been built in the past three years. There are also no stocks of medication.
The country was apparently unprepared for this bad corona wave. Although the government had actually planned an end to the strict rules - with the constant corona tests and lockdowns. Just not as fast as it happened. "This system is not so easy to end," classifies the China expert. "Local authorities, cities and counties don't learn overnight. There are delays and obstinacy."
Infected people with mild or no corona symptoms should now remain in quarantine in their apartment to relieve the health system. A few months ago that was unthinkable. Some metropolises such as Chongqing and Guiyang or the province of Zhejiang even allow people with Covid 19 to go to work if they have no or only mild symptoms, reports the party-affiliated newspaper Global Times.
In order to get the many infections under control, the government is expanding medical care. It has opened tens of thousands of fever clinics in hospitals, 14,000 in large hospitals, 33,000 in community hospitals.
In addition, there are now twice as many intensive care beds as there were a month ago, reports the party-affiliated newspaper "Global Times". At the moment there are 10 beds per 100,000 people. But that would still be much less than in Taiwan or Kazakhstan, for example.
China expert Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer is optimistic about China's health policy. He believes the government is now trying to stop people from taking to the streets. "Pictures show that there are also highly committed medical staff in China and that there will of course also be an attempt to treat everyone who needs treatment and to avoid incidents in which people might even express justified criticism to the outside world. " Every party member down to the lowest level would be careful not to create protests. Otherwise, the person could quickly lose his job in the party.
Corona has it easy in China. Millions of older people are still not fully vaccinated against the virus. Only around 70 percent of people over the age of 60 and around 40 percent of people over the age of 80 have received a booster. For many Chinese, the last vaccination was a long time ago.
According to the “Global Times”, the government is now setting up additional vaccination centers. The interval between vaccinations has also been shortened.
The Chinese actually pay attention to their health, but do not trust the domestic vaccines. Only those are approved in the People's Republic, but they are not as effective as mRNA vaccines like Biontech's. At the moment only Germans in China can be vaccinated with Biontech. China only wants to approve the vaccine for everyone if the European approval authority EMA also approves the Chinese vaccine Sinovac.
Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer predicts that China will soon change its course. "I don't expect China to decouple from this pharmacological development." China doesn't just want to be an importer, but an actor, explains the expert in the "Learned something again" podcast. "China always wants to become more autonomous or self-sufficient and not dependent on the outside, although it is clear that it will remain dependent in many ways."
The corona wave in China has only just begun. Health experts estimate that 60 percent of the population will become infected in the next few months. In the end, 80 to 90 percent of the 1.4 billion Chinese will probably be infected, according to state media, former vice chief of the national health agency Feng Zijian expects. Studies predict that several hundred thousand to almost a million people will die. And if the virus spreads, dangerous mutations are not far away, the US State Department fears.
The current corona wave will last until March, says Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer. During this time, the Chinese traditionally travel through the country, partly because of the New Year or Spring Festival. That falls on January 22nd in 2023. "That's another touchstone. You'll see if there are stricter restrictions." Since the Chinese population is very health-conscious, people would wear masks and keep their distance. "One can assume that the whole thing may go ahead without many fatalities."