Is this possible now? This week, my colleague Paul Krugman wrote that the protests were a sign that “China has lost the Covid war”, pointing out that, despite appearances at the start of the pandemic, democracies now seem to have markedly outperformed autocracies, and calling on Chinese leaders to recognize the error of their ways and change course. In The Guardian, Yu Jie wrote that “zero Covid cannot continue”, with reopening being “the only way to assuage public anger”. But personally, I would only bet on smaller-scale tweaks, the kind that had already been proposed by Beijing in the weeks before the protests began.
This is because the best model of what could happen in a truly open China is Hong Kong’s experience with Omicron. As of mid-February 2022, there had been a reported total of just over 200 deaths in the city since the start of the pandemic. By mid-April, there were more than 9,000. And while a much more aggressive continental campaign to provide mRNA vaccines to the elderly could reduce the death toll, the experience of other widely recognized countries for doing everything right suggests that even the best exits from the emergency phase of the pandemic can be quite messy. .
Consider the experience of Japan, one of the world’s most famous pandemic success stories. Covid deaths there are 70% higher this calendar year than they were in the first two years of the pandemic combined. In Iceland, another oft-cited success story, five times more people died from Covid in 2022 than in the first two years of the pandemic. In Australia, it is six times more. Last January, Taiwan had recorded less than 1,000 deaths; today that figure is over 14,000. According to The Economist’s gold standard tracker, New Zealand is now the only country in the world with negative excess mortality over the duration of the pandemic – which means the country has had fewer deaths since 2020 than would have been expected in a world without SARS. -CoV-2. And yet, even there, the past year has upended some narratives: as recently as January 2022, only 52 New Zealanders had died of Covid; today the figure is over 2,000, more than 40 times higher.
In each of these countries, the rapid increases in Covid mortality this year come from very low and likely unsustainable baselines, but even so they tell a stark story. Mitigation measures mattered, especially until the advent of vaccines, when vaccination mattered even more. But in any particular country, the dream of outright defeating the pandemic – or even keeping it at bay long enough to fully protect the population through universal vaccination – was no match for the disease itself. same. Eventually, all the countries got it.
Or almost all countries. Throughout the pandemic, many international observers have questioned the reliability of official Chinese data on the pandemic’s toll. But given the global context, these data are still quite stunning, even correcting for their unreliability: In January, China reported just under 5,000 total Covid deaths. Today that figure is just over 5,000. A nation of 1.4 billion people recorded just 500 official deaths in the year their pandemic policy began to s ‘collapse. In total, over three years, the country has only reported 1.6 million official infections, and while this is certainly a gross underestimate, it suggests that only around a tenth of 1% of the country has ever been sick with covid. In the United States, more of our population has died from it – nearly 1.1 million deaths in total.
This is by no means to suggest that China’s permanent shutdowns are a better model, or that any of the world’s major countries would or should want to trade places with China. But the binary contrast between the approaches is not as illuminating as it seems.
In the United States, where people sometimes talk about “lockdowns” and mean “mask mandates” and “school closures” or sometimes just “widespread testing”, even relatively mild mitigation measures have become politically and socially toxic. . But the most obvious tools to limit the ongoing spread aren’t particularly troublesome: investments in clean air and better workplace safety standards, paid sick leave, aggressive rollout of those nasal vaccines and emphasis on the vulnerability of the country’s elderly, who constitute about 90% of its extremely high ongoing fatalities. In China, pandemic policy has only become significantly more restrictive than it was in the US and Britain in the summer of 2021, according to a ‘strictness index’ calculated by government response tracking from the University of Oxford, and the country now faces some tough choices. because of the effectiveness of those restrictions, but because of issues unrelated to vaccine deployment and effectiveness.
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