For nearly three years, the Chinese government has deployed its considerable propaganda apparatus to stoke Covid fears to justify large-scale quarantines, frequent mass testing and the tracking of more than a billion people. As authorities change their approach to the pandemic, they are faced with the task of downplaying those fears.
Until this past week, which saw rallies expressing extraordinary public opposition to the strict “zero Covid” rules, government officials and state media continued to highlight the most ominous medical news about the pandemic. There were countless stories about the high death toll elsewhere – especially in the United States – and about the months of respiratory problems, cognitive impairment and other problems that come with long Covid.
The Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, warned on November 15 that any easing of Covid measures would endanger the lives and health of the Chinese people: “The easing of prevention and control will inevitably increase the risk of infection of susceptible groups. .”
A week and a half ago, the deputy prime minister overseeing the government’s Covid responses, Sun Chunlan, said that “everyone who needs to be tested should be tested and no one should be left behind.”
But as local governments now scramble to dismantle testing requirements and remove curbside test booths, Ms Sun changed tack on Wednesday. “China’s pandemic prevention faces a new situation and new tasks given the debilitating severity of the Omicron variant,” she said.
China is facing a challenging moment in its pandemic response, experts say, largely because of confused reporting. The government has failed to take many proven public health measures, such as aggressive full-vaccination campaigns, putting many citizens of the world’s most populous nation at risk.
China’s top leader Xi Jinping had personally confirmed that sacrifices were needed to stop the spread of Covid. “It is better to temporarily influence the development of the economy a little bit than to harm people’s life, safety and health,” he said in June.
Beijing is now moving quickly to ease the burden of the Covid restrictions. Some neighborhood committees are starting to leave residents at home if they or their relatives are infected, instead of transporting them to makeshift hospitals, large stadiums or long rows of shipping containers, the standard procedure since the early months of the pandemic. Chengdu, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Beijing, Chongqing and Shenzhen have all lifted requirements in recent days for residents to show negative Covid tests before taking the subway or entering other public places.
But allaying terror-bordered Covid concerns among millions of people, especially older residents, is proving challenging for the Communist Party and state media. Complicating matters is that China’s leaders have a long history of avoiding the impression that they are reversing policies because of public anger.
Understand the protests in China
During the government’s unyielding response, the country has struggled to adequately vaccinate some of its most vulnerable: Two-thirds of people aged 80 and over have received the first course of vaccination, usually two doses, but only 40 percent have received a booster dose.
International scientists say three of China’s vaccines are needed to achieve protection comparable to that of two mRNA vaccines in the West.
New state media coverage of Covid lacks any mention of the protests of recent days. Reports have shifted to research by Chinese scientists that the Omicron variant may not be as dangerous as previous versions of the virus.
Southern Daily, a state-controlled newspaper in Guangzhou, published a report on Saturday highlighting a municipal estimate that 90 percent of Omicron infections were asymptomatic. Citing interviews with seven leading Guangzhou doctors, the newspaper also assured readers that symptomatic cases were rarely serious, except among elderly, unvaccinated residents.
Many other countries have found that Omicron is less deadly but more contagious. There are nearly 7 million confirmed deaths from Covid globally, while China says it has suffered just over 5,000 deaths.
On Thursday, Global Times, another Communist Party publication, quoted a doctor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou as questioning the existence of long Covid, a complex cluster of post-infection symptoms, sometimes debilitating, that extended has been recorded by the US government. epidemiologists.
“There are no confirmed consequences of Covid-19,” said Dr Chong Yutian, who used a medical term for lingering consequences after an infection or injury. Dr. Chong did not respond to a request for comment.
Steering public opinion in a new direction will not be easy for China as the state media had effectively suppressed any suggestion that Covid could be manageable.
“Until recently, the experts were all focused on supporting anti-Covid policies,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “The media is suddenly going all the way in the direction that the virus has mutated and is less sickening.”
Better communication, including on the importance of vaccination, is essential for China to emerge from Covid restrictions, said Jin Dongyan, a Hong Kong University virologist. Many in China are still so afraid of the virus that they may even stay home from supermarkets when the country begins to open up, which could cause further economic damage, he warned.
“It’s very important to educate the general public, and that’s what they need to reinforce, because right now the public is confused and divided,” he said.
Jiang Sigui, 60, a maize farmer in Guangxi, an impoverished region in southern China, said he was concerned that the easing of “zero Covid” restrictions would lead to a wave of infections hitting rural villages like his could overwhelm, with limited health care. facilities. He fears for his ability to continue raising his grandchildren if he falls ill.
“I support the fight against Covid,” he said. “Right now I am at home and raising children. I am absolutely worried about the virus – who isn’t?”
Yet many young and middle-aged residents of China appear to fear Covid less than they are affected by the restrictions imposed by China to curb its spread. That feeling was apparent during the recent protests.
China has halted nearly all international travel during the pandemic and has increasingly tightened censorship of the internet, including a virtual blocking of access to foreign websites. Many of the protests have taken place in coastal provinces where residents often have the internet tools to see foreign websites showing how the rest of the world has adapted to living with Covid.
Still, interviews with people in Lanzhou, a provincial capital in western China, indicate that the desire for a shift in Covid policies has reached China’s vast interior as well.
Zhang Zechen, a 20-year-old university student, said she was cooped up in her dorm for most of the past semester. The university required her to have a PCR test every four days. When the university offered students the chance to leave a month early for Lunar New Year celebrations to reduce the risk of transmission, it jumped at the chance.
“I felt tired of PCR testing,” Ms. Zhang said. “Everyone feels crazy.”
A 24-year-old migrant worker said he was infected with Covid while working in Tibet last September, only to find that the only symptoms of his illness were coughing for a few days. He was critical of policies such as locking residents into their homes for weeks, sometimes gathering more than a million people even after a handful of cases.
“A lockdown should never be extended to an entire district, affecting people’s normal travel and work,” said the worker, who only mentioned his last name, Ma, when discussing his personal health.
But even as China takes a more reassuring stance on Covid dangers, many experts are urging caution. They argue that the government has not yet done enough to vaccinate the elderly, prepare hospitals and educate the public.
“If they lift all restrictions too soon, it is likely to lead to a high number of cases and economic disruption,” said Andy Chen, a public health analyst in the Shanghai office of Trivium China, a consulting firm.
Li you contributed research.