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China’s ‘explosion’ of COVID cases not due to relaxed rules, WHO says, as first deaths reported since relaxed

China faces its biggest public health challenge since the start of the coronavirus pandemic more than three years ago. Nine days after the government abruptly abandoned its draconian “zero-COVID” policy, stopping mandatory mass testing and forced quarantines, COVID-19 is once again spreading like wildfire across the vast country.

On Friday, local media inside PorcelainThe tightly controlled press reported some of the first deaths attributed to COVID since restrictions were lifted. Two former journalists for Chinese state media were killed in Beijing on December 8 and 15, according to the media. Both were men in their 70s. Official government agencies have not yet confirmed that the deaths were due to COVID; no coronavirus deaths have been officially reported since the controversial zero-COVID policy was lifted.

But the World Health Organization says the strict policy of the last three years stopped working anyway.

“The explosion of cases in China is not due to the lifting of COVID restrictions,” said the head of emergency programs at the WHO, Dr. Mike Ryan. “The explosion of cases in China had started long before any relaxation of the zero COVID policy.”

If so, no one had told the Chinese public.

People line up outside a fever clinic in Beijing, China, to seek testing and treatment amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, December 14, 2022.


The sudden U-turn of the ruling Communist Party just over a week ago threw Beijing into chaos, with people not sure what the new rules were or why they had been changed so drastically. At “fever clinics” across the capital, people feeling unwell have waited and worried for hours to be tested for the virus and treated for whatever ails them.

For three years, Chinese officials had instilled in people’s minds the message that COVID-19 was a killer. Nine days ago, the official message suddenly changed, telling people that unless they are really sick, they should stay home and get well.

China virus outbreak
Medical workers vaccinate a man against COVID-19 at a vaccination center in Beijing on December 16, 2022.

Ng Han Guan/AP

The sea change in policy and rhetoric has been bolstered by upbeat state messages, urging people to return to normal.

But Beijingers still don’t believe it. The still empty streets and shops in the capital show that extreme caution is being chosen.

“I have to be more careful now,” said Liu, a 26-year-old Beijinger who works in e-commerce. “Because no one else is going to protect me.”

Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan inspects the Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing, China, on December 13, 2022, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Yan Yan/Xinhua/Getty

On a visit to a Beijing hospital, China’s COVID-19 czar Sun Chunlan said the priority now was treatment, not prevention and elimination of cases. As part of the radical changes, the government admitted that it had stopped counting cases and promised a new focus on vaccinating the vulnerable. Many Chinese elderly remain unvaccinated or undervaccinated.

The rare protests that broke out in China in late November, demanding an end to ongoing lockdowns and other zero-COVID policy restrictions, may have pushed the state away from control measures. But grim economic data, and quite possibly knowledge of a coming tsunami of infections, may have been instrumental in Beijing’s decision to do a U-turn.

The global supply chain may benefit as China relaxes its “zero COVID” policies


And this wave is just beginning.

A study funded in part by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the country urgently needs to implement vaccines and antiviral drugs if it is to avoid 1 million COVID deaths in the coming weeks and months.

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