Health infrastructure in China collapses under Covid-19 outbreak

The health system of the much vaunted second most powerful economy of the world has all but collapsed in the face of a Covid-19 outbreak. According to a New York Times report on December 26, 2022, “the government has now simply disappeared, just as many Chinese are getting very ill with the virus or dying from it.”

The irony of the situation is quite telling. The faulty Covid management policy of the Communist Party of China caused some problems. Experts have pointed out that the root cause behind the explosive Covid outbreak in China is the policy of President Xi Jinping of self-reliance in fighting Covid. Xi has refused to use foreign-made mRNA vaccines that are a product of cutting edge technology; instead promoting domestic vaccines based on inactivated versions of the virus and barring all foreign ones from the market.

Unfortunately, however, Chinese vaccines have been marked for lack of efficacy and waning durability. According to reports adverse reactions to Chinese vaccines have led to death and severe disabilities. Parents are refusing to give permission to administer the shots to their children. According to an AP report from Beijing on December 27, 2022, with the massive outbreak in Covid-19 cases, as the authorities in China were going door to door and even paying people older than 60 years of age to get vaccinated, many people were refusing to get vaccinated; alarmed over reports of fever, blood clot and other side effects of Chinese vaccines. “When people hear about such incidents, they may not be willing to take the vaccine,” the report quoted 64-year-old resident of Beijing Li Liansheng.

Instead of importing effective vaccines and other medicines, President of China Xi Jinping had been trying to keep the impending Covid outbreak under control through a draconian zero-Covid policy which did incalculable harm to the Chinese economy but failed to control the virus.

That the zero-Covid policy did not have the desired result is evident from a report of the National Health Commission of China that over 40,000 new cases were recorded even in the midst of harsh lockdowns and repeated mass testing which have marked the zero-Covid policy. Rather, the policy was counterproductive, as the subsequent developments have established. The emphasis on lockdown and mass testing had led to a low rate of administration of vaccines and boosters, leaving the elderly particularly vulnerable to infection. About 65 percent of the people above the age of 60 years have been vaccinated in China and only about 45 percent have received the booster shots. Hitherto, the Chinese policy has been to limit the administration of vaccines to people between 19 and 60 years of age.

Faced with a mutinous situation the Chinese government did a U-turn and withdrew all restrictions in a hurry, causing a massive outbreak of the disease. Swiftly and haphazardly, Beijing reversed course by abandoning altogether the strict zero-Covid policy two weeks ago.

The NYT report has summarized the situation succinctly. “In its single-minded pursuit of the zero-Covid strategy, the Chinese government was omnipresent and omnipotent, using its unlimited resources and unchecked power to control the nation. After having nearly exhausted its resources and the goodwill of the public, the government has now simply disappeared, just as many Chinese are getting very ill with the virus or dying from it.”

As people are dying in thousands and doctors are collapsing under pressure at overcrowded hospitals, there is not even a mask mandate in the country now. Medicines are in short supply. Schools are still open though no one is attending them as children are either ill or are worried about getting sick. “No one is in charge now,” the NYT report has quoted Shenzhen engineer Yang who did not want his full name to be quoted in the report for fear of persecution. For about the last one year, Yang had to undertake Covid tests almost every day; and used to get a reminder from the bosses in the district if he missed one. 

Things have come to such a pass that in the absence of directions at the moment of crisis, the people are questioning the legitimacy and the credibility of the rule of the CPC. Videos have gone viral of hundreds of Chinese citizens in queues outside fever clinics and hospitals. Understaffed hospitals and the shortage of ventilators and medicines have led to chaos and panic in several cities in China. A video shared by a U.K.-based media outlet shows a doctor collapsing on the floor while attending patients.

It does not need an expert to analyze why the Covid situation in China has come to such a sorry pass. The authorities in China had known for a long time that the vaccines developed domestically were ineffective. The need to establish the superiority of the Chinese system was, however, stronger than the need to save lives of the common Chinese people; so the import of vaccines from the USA or the U.K. was ruled out.

To delay the inevitable outbreak, a draconian lockdown was imposed; harming the economy and ruining the daily life of the ordinary citizens; leaving people without jobs and a fall in income. At the end of 2022, sentiments among the manufacturing and service business in China were said to be the lowest since 2020. Almost 80 percent of European business in China has cut revenue projections, according to the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China. The unemployment rate among the youth is estimated to be 20 percent.

When people rebelled, the restrictions were completely withdrawn; leading to a massive outbreak. The government conveniently passed the blame on “foreign agents” for engineering the rebellion and withdrew from the scene.

“Government disappears”

As the situation continues to worsen, the Chinese government has panicked and stopped giving out the death figures. Reports say this decision of the National Health Commission of China came into effect on December 25, 2022. The drastic decision has baffled experts as the NHC has released Covid data for the last three years.

A World Health Organization report on the Covid situation in China says between January 3, 2020 and December 23, 2022, there have been more than 10 million confirmed Covid cases in China and 31,585 deaths. Experts have warned of between one million and two million deaths in China in 2023.

The WHO has warned that Beijing’s way of counting the deaths would underestimate the total death toll. The Chinese government has narrowed the criterion for Covid deaths, inviting widespread criticisms from across the world. Beijing has announced that only those who had died directly of respiratory failure caused by the virus would be included in the Covid death figures. This does not correspond to WHO guidelines and results in a figure way below the death figures in other countries.

Figures do not reveal the gravity of the whole situation. According to reports emanating from behind the bamboo curtain, emergency wards in hospitals, especially in small cities and towns, are overwhelmed. Intensive care units are turning away ambulances, relatives of sick people are searching for open beds and patients are slumped on benches in hospital corridors and lying on floors in want of beds.

“After the Chinese government ordered sudden lifting of lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing, hospitals have been struggling, crematoriums are overwhelmed and pharmacies are running out of medicines,” says one report on the situation in China. Most Chinese hospitals are grappling with the problem of few doctors and a large number of patients. The rate of infection in hospitals is developing faster than that in society. The infected staff is unable to report for duty, leading to the staff shortage.

Because of mismanagement of the situation by the government, insufficient medical resources have emerged as one of the biggest problems facing the people of China. Reports in the Chinese media highlight that hospitals in the country are faced with an acute shortage of ICU beds, ventilators as well as medical professionals while medicines have vanished from the market.

As the zero-Covid policy was abandoned in a hurry and the number of Covid cases rose significantly in the past few weeks, panic-stricken people started hoarding critical medicines. Infected families are unable to find even common antipyretic medicines that are used to reduce fever. Despite the efforts by the CPC to control the epidemic with home-made medicines, more and more people are opting for generic versions of anti-Covid oral drugs from India,  like Pfizer’s anti-Covid oral drug Paxlovid. Within a week of the surge in Covid-19 cases at the end of December 2022, these drugs were sold out in various e-commerce websites and advance pre-booking became necessary. According to reports, these drugs were also selling widely in the Chinese black market.

The rapid Covid outbreak has exposed one weakness of the available medical facilities in China, the disparity in critical care capabilities between urban and rural areas. Despite claims of China now competing with developed countries, the rural areas in China have much weaker medical resources compared to big cities, particularly intensive care facilities for vulnerable groups such as the elderly and the infants. Local governments which are responsible for providing these health services are starved of funds. Doctors in China are reported to be a worried lot if the medical and healthcare system in the Chinese countryside is at all prepared to cope with the impending onslaught of Covid-19.