The World Health Organization (WHO) is “very concerned” by reports of increasing COVID-19 case numbers and overwhelmed health services in China, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced in a press briefing Wednesday.
The statement comes in the wake of shocking images and videos from the normally tight-lipped nation, which have seen hospitals and funerary services unable to cope with what seems to be a massive tidal wave of severe COVID cases.
“In China, what's been reported is relatively low numbers of cases in ICUs, but anecdotally ICUs are filling up,” WHO emergencies chief Michael Ryan told the BBC.
“We've been saying this for weeks,” he continued. “This highly infectious virus was always going to be very hard to stop completely, with just public health and social measures.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, few nations have taken quite as hardline a stance on the disease as China. There, the policy known as “zero-COVID” – one of extremely aggressive public health measures aimed at suppressing and containing the virus’s spread as much as possible – has held on much longer than almost anywhere else, being effectively dismantled only a matter of days ago in the wake of nationwide protests over the policy.
Unpopular as it was, the policy did seem to be a success: despite being the country where the virus was first reported, China has consistently reported significantly lower rates of infection than most of Europe and North America.
But even as the government’s zero-COVID policy held strong towards the end of 2022, that well of good news seemed to be running dry. By November, state media was reporting record daily highs of COVID numbers, and normally rare criticisms of the country’s health infrastructure were making their way into mainstream local media.
Still, though, many health experts cautioned against abandoning zero-COVID too hastily. Years of lockdowns and quarantines, combined with domestic vaccines which have seen both lower uptake and lower efficacy than elsewhere, has left some worrying that the population would be uniquely vulnerable to a “tsunami” of illness and death if the zero-COVID policy were suddenly scrapped.
“[There’s] just not adequate protection in a population as large as China, with so many vulnerable people,” Ryan told AP in the wake of Wednesday’s press briefing.
“Vaccination is the exit strategy from omicron,” he said, but “the question remains whether or not enough vaccination can be done in the coming week or two weeks that will actually blunt the impact of the second wave and the burden on the health system.”
Two weeks after the country’s U-turn on the policy, news and media out of China is seeming to confirm those warnings. Despite official accounts reporting extremely low numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, investigators on the ground are telling a very different story.
“It’s not just in Beijing,” reported CNN’s Selina Wang in a report from the Chinese capital yesterday. “Social media shows crematoriums and funeral homes around the country overwhelmed.”
“Long lines… are forming across the country outside of hospitals,” she continued. And a hospital worker, asked whether he was seeing many people dying from the virus, tells her “yes, every day.”
But as official figures lag well behind real-time case numbers – in China as well as across the world – only time will tell the true impact of the country’s rollback of its COVID-19 policy. One thing’s for sure, though: as omicron runs rampant across the globe, and yet more mutant variants continue to evolve, COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon.