ANALYSIS-China’s COVID policymaking under scrutiny as infections soar
By Eduardo Baptista and Ryan Woo
BEIJING, December 29 (Reuters) – After China scrapped three years of zero COVID restrictions in 30 days, triggering a massive wave of infections, policymakers in Beijing face an immense challenge to treat the sick and minimize deaths while regaining public trust. shaken by previous policies.
Scenes of overwhelmed hospitals, people on IV drips by the roadside and lines of hearses outside crematoria fueled public concern. An extraordinarily low number of reported deaths – 10 deaths since the old political regime was overthrown on December 7 – and a decision by authorities to stop publishing case data have also stoked mistrust.
With estimates of millions of daily cases and at least 1 million COVID deaths next year, global experts say the world’s most populous nation needs to quickly build up its medical infrastructure. Chinese authorities have pledged to bolster protection for key demographics – including millions of elderly people – to increase vaccination rates and expand health resources.
Experts say China has been caught off guard by the sharp reversal in policies long championed by President Xi Jinping and implemented by Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, a trusted ally whether in the Chinese capital or in the countryside.
In December, hospital tenders for key medical equipment such as ventilators and patient monitors were two to three times higher than in previous months, a Reuters study found, suggesting that hospitals across the country struggled to fill the shortages.
China’s COVID policy, especially at the local level, is chaotic due to shortages of medical supplies and large numbers of sick elderly people, said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. National University of Singapore.
“It really is an unprecedented emergency now, due to the shortage of health care that has happened everywhere, at different levels, even in Beijing,” Wu said.
“More fundamental, more subtle and more important is the social contract and social trust in China. It is supposed to be very high and supposed to help the government to face many challenges, but now the problem is that we do not know how much of faith people have in government.”
The State Council Information Office, which handles media inquiries for the government, did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
For the past three years, Vice Premier Sun, 72, has been the face of China’s fight against COVID, a motherly figure who has executed Xi’s zero COVID policy with a steady hand.
On January 22, 2020, while visiting the central city of Wuhan where the novel coronavirus was first discovered, Sun asked local cadres to implement the “strictest” anti-epidemic measures. A day later, the city of more than 13 million people was blocked – the first of a long series across China that has sparked anger and protests.
In April this year, Sun rushed to Shanghai as the city was in lockdown, according to state media. After a month-long stint, Sun said now was not the time for the city of 25 million to relax. The lockdown lasted another month.
Recognized by Xi, the former factory worker has taken a beating for his COVID policies.
In 2020, while inspecting a high-rise condominium building in Wuhan, her group was heckled by residents in lockdown. ” It’s wrong ! It’s wrong ! they shouted from their windows, accusing officials of arranging grocery deliveries to coincide with his visit.
During the Shanghai lockdown, while also on an inspection tour, Sun was bombarded with calls from residents shouting from their windows, “No more rice! No more cooking oil! Please , take us with you! Don’t leave us!”
Sun will step down in March in a cabinet reshuffle that also involves many other senior government officials. She is also past the usual retirement age of 68.
“Politically, she faithfully obeyed President Xi’s orders,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior researcher for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an independent US think tank.
According to minutes of a COVID teleconference between top policymakers seen by Reuters and confirmed by a source with knowledge of the Dec. 25 meeting, Li Qiang, the former Shanghai Communist Party chief who oversaw the lockdown of two months from the city, spoke as the new leader of a small but powerful political decision-making group on COVID.
Li is a close ally of Xi and was recently elected as No. 2 of the seven-man Standing Committee, the pinnacle of power in the Communist Party.
How current infections are handled remains a key near-term challenge for the COVID czars.
“If they can’t do a good job of dealing with the influx of cases and it leads to mass mortality, that fear and panic would be a challenge to social and political stability,” CFR’s Huang said.
(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista and Ryan Woo; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)
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