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Sorrow and confusion: Inside China’s sudden COVID reopening

‘My experience may have been ordinary, but the collective experience of hundreds of millions of Chinese getting COVID all around the same time after three years of safety was anything but.’

A traveller wearing a protective suit outside Beijing railway station on 7 January 2023. With COVID restrictions now lifted, millions of Chinese are heading off for traditional Lunar New Year family get-togethers, raising fears of new waves of the virus. Tingshu Wang/REUTERS
A traveller wearing a protective suit outside Beijing railway station on 7 January 2023. With COVID restrictions now lifted, millions of Chinese are heading off for traditional Lunar New Year family get-togethers, raising fears of new waves of the virus.

In mid-December, about 10 days after China suddenly announced it would drop its strict zero-COVID control policies, I found myself lying in bed, worrying about how long I could sustain such elevated heart rates. 

 

Like countless others, I had contracted COVID-19 and was fighting off a fever. My experience may have been ordinary, but the collective experience of hundreds of millions of Chinese getting COVID all around the same time after three years of safety was anything but.

 

For three years, China had been in full-on containment mode, successfully combatting the spread of COVID with some of the world’s toughest restrictions. But then, on 7 December, the government performed a U-turn, releasing updated rules that no longer mandated testing and allowed people to home-quarantine.

 

It was as if a switch had been flipped. And it came with no advance notice of the inevitable incoming COVID wave, nor were people warned to gather medication or get booster shots. With official information lagging behind, Weibo, with its more than 580 million monthly active users, became one of the go-to places for everyone to assess the latest COVID situation.

 

The early days were a mix of confusion and excitement, played out over social media, where, after years of international travel bans, many were immediately discussing travel plans.

 

But trending topics on Weibo also started to read like a class in COVID 101.

 

On 11 December, top Weibo topics included “Why do you feel sore all over your body after getting COVID?”, “What should I do if I can't get meds after I got COVID?” A day later, “Is it considered a work-related injury if I got COVID at work?” Then, “How to tell the difference between the common cold and COVID?” and “What will happen in a week when young and middle-aged people get COVID?” 

 

By the time I was recovering from COVID, however, online discussions were already turning far more bleak. 

 

I read reports of people forming WeChat groups to try to buy Paxlovid – a lifesaving antiviral drug developed by Pfizer that the government had only begun stocking up on. It was being sold for around RMB 2,170-2,980 ($320-$440) in official channels, but scalpers were asking for as much as RMB 8,000.

 

Seeing photos and hearing stories of overcrowded hospitals, my friends and family hoped that regular drugs, good rest, and our own immune systems would be enough to recover. We saw hospitals as a last resort, places to avoid if we could.

 

There wasn’t much time to feel worried because the COVID wave came so quickly. As soon as people heard of others getting infected and started to worry about their elderly relatives, they themselves became infected. In the end, a lot of us were just lucky – we didn’t have time to prepare, but we somehow got through it. 

 

I learned several of my friends’ grandparents had died. I realised that while my family and I were getting better, many were fighting to live, and others didn't make it. 

 

The speed of this transition has left me, along with so many other Chinese, grappling with so many questions. How many of us didn’t make it? What’s the ratio? Why did we reopen so quickly? Why weren’t families alerted to stock up on the necessary drugs and home treatment kits before the reopening? 

 

By late December, most people had stopped doing COVID tests. They might do antigen tests at home, but few would report the results. With so little official information and data, there’s no way to accurately gauge the answers to these questions and assess the situation. Even the experts have admitted so on state television. “There is no way to calculate the specific numbers. We don’t know the denominator… Many people would stay at home for a few days and go back to work after recovering… Maybe we all had COVID, but we still don’t know the denominator,” Tong Chaohui, vice president of Beijing Chaoyang Hospital, told state broadcaster CCTV in a video interview that ran on 2 January.

 

Picking through the clues

 

For those of us still seeking answers, clues have often come in our daily reading. Not all causes of death were given as COVID, but I began seeing more obituaries: famous professors from top universities, a popular online reading club founder's father and uncle, an acclaimed journalist.

 

In late December, Caixin – one of China’s few remaining critical news outlets – published a feature on COVID in Beijing. “We usually handle 150 bodies a day, now we are handling 600 bodies a day,” they reported a staffer at Beijing Babao Mountain Funeral House telling an anxious family member who was wondering why they couldn’t make an appointment. 

 

On 14 January, the Chinese government announced that about 60,000 people had died from COVID since the reopening. Though the figure takes into account only deaths at medical facilities, the World Health Organization commended the release of the updated figures.

 

As COVID becomes omnipresent, news is now coming from unusual sources. A well-known Shanghai real estate expert published an out-of-character article after visiting a Shanghai funeral home. He has since deleted the post, but archived versions live on the internet. 

 

He visited the Longhua funeral home on the last working day of 2022. After passing crowds, he froze before a screen showing the schedule of different ceremonies in various halls:

Name #HuaiAn Hall: 9:00 - 9:10

Name #HuaiAn Hall: 9:10 - 9:20

Name #HuaiAn Hall: 9:20 - 9:30

Name #YongAn Hall: 9:20 - 9:30

I froze too. I happened to visit this very funeral home a few months earlier. I know the ceremony usually takes an hour, which is still too little time to bid a final farewell to the dead and pay respect to the body before the cremation. Now, funeral homes have become so crowded that families must rush the entire ceremony in just 10 minutes – and many more are waiting for that spot. 

 

As different Chinese regions go through their peak infection periods, there are signs of officials trying to remedy the situation. Beijing and Shanghai have set up systems in hospitals to triage patients. In late December and early January, the cities also began distributing Paxlovid and Azvudine (a Chinese-made antiviral drug) to community health centres to help with severe cases.

 

In the coming weeks, epidemiologists are anticipating smaller new waves in rural China as millions of Chinese travel home to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday. Some regions, like Shanxi, are already distributing free fever reducers to all villages, which have long lacked medical resources.

 

Having now experienced COVID myself – and having seen friends, families, and almost everyone I know go through it – part of me wonders how much of this abrupt, unprepared feeling of reopening is due to the fact we have lived in a safe bubble for almost three years. 

 

Many countries have already experienced the losses and chaos of spiking new cases and strained hospitals that China is now seeing. Could it just be that we are finally getting through the necessary pain to get out of the endless lockdown? 

 

But another part of me wonders how much of the ongoing pain and losses is actually necessary, and how much might have been avoidable if people had been better prepared. 

 

For much of 2020 and 2021, life in China was, for most people, largely ordinary and bearable. We could carry on with only a few inconveniences: With tracking codes, masks, and COVID tests, we could commute, work in an office, travel, shop, and dine out. Until the government announced the reopening on 7 December. China had only reported 5,235 total deaths from COVID. 

 

That "normalcy" was mostly due to China's decision to cordon off Wuhan in early 2020, cutting off the transmission when the virus was unstudied and more potent. The Chinese people, as a whole, willingly put up with frequent tests and controlled lockdowns. Many, including me, were thankful for that and thought the government had made the right decision.

 

Last year was, of course, another story. As other countries reopened in the latter half of 2022, people gradually lost patience. China was still fighting a much more transmissible variant with old tools: lockdowns and tests.

 

No country can avoid losses and chaos when going through different stages of COVID, but it’s hard not to wonder what different tacks might have been taken.

 

After China emerges from the initial shock of reopening, the theme for 2023 will be growth and making up for the economic losses of the past few years. As with other events, the pain and losses might quickly fade into the background. Will China ever look back and have a discussion about why it reopened the way it did? Will it consider what more could have been done to make the process easier and less painful for ordinary families? I don’t know, but we should have those talks and become better prepared regardless. 

 

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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