Abrupt Policy Change Could Lead To Millions Of Deaths In China, Analyses Claim

(Photo by NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
Font Size:

China could face millions of COVID deaths following the country’s pivot away from its “zero-COVID” strategy, analysts project.

China’s draconian lockdown policies meant to achieve zero-COVID could be part of the reason the potential death toll looks so devastating, some experts say. They say China has a relatively low level of natural immunity compared to other countries due to lower infection numbers. Additionally, they cite the lower effectiveness of Chinese-made vaccines in preventing serious illness and death compared to Western vaccines.

After nearly three years of implementing some of the world’s strictest lockdowns, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) moved in December to relax some of its COVID-19 policies. People with mild or asymptomatic cases are now allowed to isolate at home instead of at government facilities, and residents no longer need to use a virtual health pass to enter most public spaces.

The CCP caved to protesters who flooded China’s streets to demand an end to COVID-19 lockdowns, which have paralyzed the Chinese economy at various points in the past three years and led to horror stories of citizens being deprived of basic rights. Now, the party is working overtime to limit the damage of the policy change in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Authorities have only reported a total of 5,250 COVID-19 deaths during the entirety of the pandemic in the country of more than one billion people and only one new death on Jan. 1, 2023. Analyses suggest the figures are almost certainly inaccurate. The true number of daily deaths could be more than 10,000 per day, U.K.-based health analytics firm Airfinity estimated.

The day before the zero-COVID policy was reversed, the National Health Commission changed the criteria for COVID deaths to exclude victims with underlying health conditions. Only deaths caused directly by pneumonia or other respiratory infection are counted. (RELATED: ‘The PRC Is Our Only Competitor’: Blinken Claims Biden Has Made Major Progress On Reining In China)

Some analysts believe the death toll resulting from the sudden policy change, when all is said and done, could total in the millions. Up to 2.1 million Chinese could die as a result of the lifting of restrictions, according to health analytics firm Airfinity. Professors at the University of Hong Kong in a pre-print study slated for peer review project nearly one million deaths.

It is difficult, however, to confirm the situation in China or the projected death totals due to a lack of transparency from the CCP. Analysts and experts dispute the official case and death numbers. Additionally, the lack of free expression in China has limited the number of first-hand accounts of the outbreak. But there are signs that things may be more dire than government officials are letting on.

While the CCP is downplaying the extent of the outbreak and reports miniscule death totals, journalists say there is an increased demand for funerals and cremations.

“China today reported just two new Covid deaths, but this was the queue of hearses at Beijing’s Dongjiao crematorium this morning,” tweeted journalist Leo Lord-Jones in December. “It’s designated to handle Covid deaths.”

Just days later, Reuters reported a line of 40 hearses outside one crematorium in Beijing while the parking lot was full. Five of the facility’s fifteen chimneys were expelling smoke. However, the outlet could not verify that the dead being cremated were COVID victims.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that hospitals in the country are overwhelmed, sharing several first-hand accounts which paint a picture of full-blown crisis. A a leaked memo from Chinese health authorities reportedly revealed that they believe there were as many as 250 million infections in the month of December alone.

Other countries have taken steps to curb the spread of China’s outbreak. Several Western nations, including the United States, are currently imposing travel restrictions on people entering the country from China, including a testing mandate.

But President Xi Jinping continues to urge his country to remain calm. In his first public comments since the policy shift, he said the change simply represents movement into a new phase of the pandemic: “At present, the epidemic prevention and control is entering a new phase, it is still a time of struggle, everyone is persevering and working hard, and the dawn is ahead. Let’s work harder, persistence means victory, and unity means victory.”

Not everyone is predicting doom-and-gloom, however. Wang Guangfa, a leading respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital, told the state-run Global Times that the COVID wave should peak in late January and life will return back to normal within one or two months, according to Reuters: “We must act quickly and prepare fever clinics, emergency and severe treatment resources,” he said.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, also told Axios not to write of President Xi yet even in this time of uncertainty. “Xi very likely is going to muddle through the crisis,” Huang said. “The virus will soon peak … There is no clear sign that suggests his power has been undermined.”