The film Force Majeurefeatures a scene in which customers at an open-air Alpine restaurant witness an avalanche. As snow barrels down the mountain toward them, they watch at first with insouciance, then rising anxiety and finally scatter in panic. Observing the omicron wave build in China feels a bit like this. We can see the approaching onslaught, we know it is coming, but it isn’t quite here yet — and we don’t know for sure how bad the impact will be. Is it a planned explosion, as one of the diners in the movie opines, or are we in the realm of out-of-control events?
The impression is certainly of a chaotic retreat. In early November, the government was still saying it would “unswervingly” follow a Covid-Zero policy that it deemed “completely correct.” Little more than a month later, President Xi Jinping’s signature pandemic program is history, for all practical purposes. The testing system has broken down, and a mobile app used to track people’s travel history has been scrapped. Propaganda has done a 180-degree pivot: After three years of painting the virus as deadly, officials now say it is no worse than the flu. Anecdotally, cases are surging, though official daily infection tallies are down because of the reduction in testing. Hospitals are said to be scrambling to cope.
So far, we haven’t seen the fatality rates or scenes of distress that would qualify this as a catastrophe. Nothing like, for example, the pictures of elderly Covid patients sharing wards with corpses in body bags in Hong Kong’s overstretched hospitals, the kind of images that symbolized that city’s failure to keep omicron at bay earlier this year. It may simply be too soon for that. The coming weeks and months will tell whether the abrupt switch in the government’s official messaging is the deliberate product of an evolving scientific calculus or a knee-jerk effort to keep hold of a public-policy narrative that is spinning out of its hands.
The portents are grim, if it’s the latter. Deaths would reach 1 million and perhaps more than 2 million in the event that omicron rips through the country in the same way that it has other places, based on the projections of severalstudies by researchers inside and outside China. At the upper end, that would make China’s death toll comfortably the world's highest at almost double the total for the US, albeit with four times the population. It would also demolish the ruling Communist Party’s rationale for three years of sacrifice, constrained freedoms and economic hardship: that, in contrast to the laxity and indifference of Western democracies, China has placed the lives of its citizens first.
Optimists can point to the authorities’ track record of competence. After being initially overwhelmed by the Wuhan outbreak in 2020, the government quickly mobilized resources, regained control and has kept case numbers low even as the virus ravaged developed countries. If officials now judge that the latest strains of Covid are mild enough to justify relaxation of its often draconian policies, surely they deserve some benefit of the doubt? The experience accumulated since 2020 will help, meanwhile, in tackling any upsurge in infections.
There is far more to fill the pessimistic side of the ledger. Hong Kong makes an appropriate comparison because the city followed a similar Covid-Zero policy to China. In essence, the territory bet everything on keeping omicron out. When the strain finally got into the city, cases and deaths soared. With an inadequate vaccination rate, particularly among the elderly, Hong Kong soon went from zero cases to the world’s highest death rate relative to population.
Airfinity, a London-based research firm, used Hong Kong’s omicron wave as a proxy in coming up with its forecast for between 1.3 million and 2.1 million deaths in China in the event of an end to Covid Zero. Global health specialists have long questioned whether China’s policy is sustainable given the increased infectiousness of omicron. Scrapping it without causing a public-health calamity, though, depends first on raising the vaccination rate among the elderly and vulnerable, and improving the hospital system’s ability to cope, particularly by increasing the number of intensive-care beds.
Neither of these things has been done. China has concentrated resources on building up quarantine facilities, rather than hospitals. Just 40% of people over 80 have had a booster shot. Public health officials plan a vaccination campaign for the elderly this month and in January, aiming to inoculate 90% of over-80s with at least one shot, the Wall Street Journal reported Dec. 1. Starting this campaign concurrently with easing Covid-Zero policies rather than in advance suggests that little has been learned from Hong Kong’s experience.
“The way forward for China would really be to model the Western playbook, which is buy yourself time to get vaccination uptake,” Airfinity’s CEO and founder Rasmus Bech Hansen told Bloomberg Television on Nov. 29. Hansen said it was “remarkable” that vaccination in China had almost stopped, with very little uptake since the spring. He said a full opening would be risky and expressed doubt that it would happen.
The picture that suggests itself is of a government that has been nudged into giving up an unsustainable policy, at an inopportune time and with insufficient planning, by a combination of economic pressure and popular discontent. Beijing has always been between a rock and a hard place with Covid Zero, and its failure to prepare properly hasn’t made an exit any easier. In Force Majeure, the avalanche turns out to be a false alarm; the fog that envelopes the restaurant soon lifts, and life resumes. We can only hope that China will be so lucky.