The World Health Organization’s director-general said the organization is “very concerned” about rising reports of severe covid-19 cases in China after the country largely abandoned its “zero COVID” policy, warning that the country’s low vaccination rate could result in a large number of vulnerable people becoming infected.
During a press conference on Wednesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that the UN agency requires more information on COVID-19 severity in China, specifically hospital and intensive care unit admissions, “in order to make a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation on the ground.”
“The WHO is very concerned about the evolving situation in China, which is seeing an increase in reports of severe disease,” Tedros said. While COVID-19 deaths have decreased by more than 90% since their global peak, he believes there are still too many unknowns about the virus to declare the pandemic over.
Some scientists have warned that the unchecked spread of COVID-19 in China could lead to the emergence of new variants, undermining global efforts to contain the pandemic.
“Vaccination is the omicron exit strategy,” WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan said.
Ryan stated that the explosive rise in cases in China was not solely due to the lifting of many of the country’s restrictive policies and that it was impossible to stop transmission of omicron, the most highly infectious variant of COVID-19 yet seen.
China refuses RNA vaccines
He claimed that vaccination rates among people over the age of 60 were lower in China than in many other countries, and that the efficacy of Chinese-made vaccines was around 50%.
“That is simply insufficient protection in a population as large as China, with so many vulnerable people,” Ryan explained. He added that, while China has significantly increased its capacity to vaccinate people in recent weeks, it is unclear whether this will be sufficient.
To date, China has refused to approve Western-made messenger RNA vaccines, which have been shown to be more effective than locally produced shots. Beijing did agree to allow an import of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine for Germans living in China.
“The question is whether enough vaccination can be done in the next week or two weeks to actually mitigate the impact of the second wave and the burden on the health system,” Ryan said.
He, like Tedros, stated that WHO lacked information on the extent of severe disease and hospitalization, but he also stated that nearly all countries overwhelmed by COVID-19 had struggled to share such real-time data.
Ryan also suggested that China’s definition of COVID deaths was too narrow, limiting it to people who had respiratory failure.
“People who die from COVID die from a variety of (organ) system failures, given the severity of the infection,” Ryan explained. “As a result, limiting a COVID death diagnosis to someone with a COVID positive test and respiratory failure vastly underestimates the true COVID death toll.”
Countries such as the United Kingdom, for example, define any COVID death as occurring within 28 days of testing positive for the virus.
Almost every country in the world has struggled with how to count COVID deaths, and official figures are thought to be significantly understated. The World Health Organization estimated nearly 15 million coronavirus deaths worldwide in May, more than doubling the official figure of 6 million.
China Covid-19 ‘Everyone is getting a fever’
Meanwhile, several provinces, including Zhejiang and Anhui, as well as Chongqing, are implementing a new policy that allows people with mild or no symptoms to return to work, despite a severe shortage of rapid test kits.
Since Monday, the hashtag related to this announcement has been read 33 million times on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. There is outrage and shock.
“There has been no preparation in the past three years, and all of a sudden the restrictions are lifted and you are allowed to go to work while ill – our lives are worthless like ants,” a 200-like comment reads.
“Just a few months ago, people were arrested for going to work while testing positive,” another comment with nearly 1,000 likes says.
Even some overseas Chinese who returned to the country after the hotel quarantine period was recently reduced are surprised at how quickly the virus is spreading.
“I had never had Covid-19 in the previous few years while living abroad, but I got it a few days after I returned… “Everyone I know is getting Covid-19 and has a fever – so if you’ve been out of the country recently, don’t come back,” wrote one user on another popular social media platform Xiaohongshu.
The Chinese internet has been flooded with posts about how people were surviving after contracting the virus over the last two weeks.
According to the BBC, videos of young children with no symptoms bringing food and water to their sick parents have circulated in Chinese media. Some have shown how they navigate social-distancing while living in the same house to avoid infecting relatives.
In the midst of a national shortage of medicines, the media has sought to highlight stories of community spirit. There are numerous videos on Weibo of people bagging up pain relief medications they don’t need and delivering them to people in need.
Outlets are encouraging people to be kind to hardworking medical personnel and highlighting instances of kindness shown to front-line staff.
Strict Covid-19 measures in China
The Paper, a news website, has highlighted a call from a man to a government operator in Chengdu, whose throat is hoarse and he coughs down the phone. “Don’t worry, there’s no problem,” he says before hanging up the phone. “Please look after yourself.”
In their lists of “trending” stories, Chinese social media platforms frequently seek to amplify positive news in the face of adversity.
In the last 24 hours, the hashtag #PersistentDoctorsandNursesWorkHard has been trending, with state media praising their front-line contributions.
However, the independent South China Morning Post has recently reported on new protests among medical students demanding “better pay” and protection on China’s front lines.
There has been no mention of these in state media. Images and videos of protests, on the other hand, are routinely censored because they represent dissatisfaction with the status quo.
This is what happened last month when protests erupted across the country in response to strict Covid-19 measures.
Nonetheless, there have been reports of the health-care system being overburdened. Thousands of retired medical workers have been recalled to the front lines after media reports of “long lines” outside outpatient clinics and “heavy pressure” on fever clinics.
Several major city newspapers have acknowledged that the number of calls to emergency services is “rising” and have urged people not to call unless absolutely necessary.
There are numerous images on Weibo of medical workers sleeping at their desks. Images of exhausted workers receiving IV drips have also circulated.
Over 10 million social media users have watched a video posted in the last 24 hours of a man on his knees pleading for his child to be treated at a fever clinic in Guangdong, the province with the most cases.
“I am also on my knees,” the doctor responds. This is how it is; there are queues that last 6-8 hours.
“Everyone is waiting, including children and the elderly; you are not alone.”