Analysis

Disastrous Homecoming of Covid-19 Virus

Three years back in December 2019, when the cases of Covid-19 started rising up in Wuhan, Hubei province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it was not so scary as people and nationalities across the world were not aware of what was at cards and how it would impact the world population and economy in ensuing days. But Mr Xi Jinping’s PRC is up at it again and this time it’s all across the communist nation. This fateful omen and resurge of infections  has also appeared around the same time i.e. towards the fag end of the year immediately after the Chinese Supremo Jinping relaxed the coronavirus protocol lifting “Zero Covid” either willfully or under the pressure of public opinion but this is indeed very scary and frightful with the consequences well known. Leaked videos from the communist country for the last few days about the chaos in mega cities’ hospitals and roads, accumulated corpses of dead waiting disposal and long queues at crematoriums are indeed a serious cause of concern although the official Chinese position is entirely at a tangent. Perhaps this is also the reason why most of the countries across the globe, particularly the US, West Europe and India having borne the maximum brunt during last three years, are anxious and concerned with what might be in store for them once again during next few weeks in the ensuing year.

Current Covid-19 Scenario in PRC

The official Chinese progressive tally of Covid-19 cases since its outbreak about three years back put China at the 96th rank among the globally unfavourably affected countries with total cases 423,334, average daily new cases ranging from 4 to 5 thousand, total deaths 5248, total recovered cases 362,362 and active cases 62,724 as on 30 December 2022 (Source: website Worldometer). This is remarkable because the worst affected countries like the US and India had reported more than four lakh new cases on a single day on many occasions in 2021 during the peak upsurge of Covid-19 cases. However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) data, there have been 10,112,335 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China with 31,431 deaths from 3 January 2020 to 21 December 2022. However, the figures reported by the unofficial sources provide an altogether different and a conflicting picture; even the reports and tally compiled by the Wikipedia give a rather frightening and alarming picture of the Covid-19 pandemic in the China mainland, particularly in its mega cities.

For instance, China’s most populated city Shanghai with estimated 28.5 million people was locked down as early as March 2022 with the upsurge of fresh coronavirus infections and the megacity becoming the epicenter of the country’s Covid-19 patients. As the city is a home of over 10,000 international companies, it was not possible to completely hide the truth despite an official blanket ban. Similarly, there are umpteen reports suggesting selective lockdown in different Chinese cities and provinces that inter alia included severe restriction on people, business and commercial activities across the country. During the second half of 2022, the surge of new coronavirus cases occurred in many cities and such data and well documented reports are readily available in various reports despite dramatic underreporting through the official channel. Yet another megacity Chengdu with approximately 21.2 million population was reportedly locked down with effect from 1st September for fifteen days and severe restrictions continued thereafter too; the situation in the capital Beijing has been no different.

During the later part of 2022, a building fire in the locked-down city Urumqi on 24 November reportedly led to the death of ten people with many wounded which provoked widespread protests across many large cities and a kind of mini revolt in China. Following the protests, initially feelers came from a very high level in governance about easing out ongoing restrictions and controls on the logic that the new Omicron variant was less virulent and overall situation had improved in China. After about a week, China announced nationwide lifting of curbs on Covid-19 protocol that inter alia included reduced PCR testing and curtailment of lockdowns from the majority areas. However, following the relaxation in the stringent measures taken earlier, an immediate surge of new infections was reported in Beijing and other places. Consequently, restaurants and food delivery services were stopped at many places with workers found infected, other business activities, meetings and conferences too were reportedly suspended at many cases. Gradually, leaked video clips and reports started emerging depicting panic in public, overburdened hospitals, overflowed crematoriums, hundreds of corpses awaiting cremation from the mainland and similar reports in the Western media and elsewhere.

Now the unofficial reports coming out of China which are the most likely true, are really frightening and worrying for the outside world. The scenario in hospitals, funeral parlors and related funeral industry chain in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere suggest a recent explosion in funeral services owing to dramatic increase in deaths. The experts fear that these deaths in the mainland are due to Covid-19 which have been hugely underreported. Within couple of days of easing out the ongoing Covid lockdown restrictions by the Xi Jinping government, the hospitals were completely overwhelmed in China. On Monday, the 19th December 2022, an epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted sharing a video with a caution that more than 60 percent of China's and 10 per cent of the Earth's population would likely be infected over the next 90 days and that the deaths are likely (to be) in the millions. The small video clip from some unknown hospital showed dead bodies stacked in rooms and corridors. Some foreign media including the Wall Street Journal reports suggest the crematoria meant for the Covid victims flooded with corpses repeating and reminding Wuhan scenes of the early 2020.

According to the WHO as of 28 November 2022, a total of 3,465,113,661 vaccine doses had been administered to the Chinese people. Yet another independent report suggests total Covid-19 vaccination doses of 3.45 billion up to 17 December 2022. Normally, there should not be such variation and discrepancy in data reporting but the Chinese data is like that only with their constant shifting stand. In all, the Chinese claim is that more than 92% population has received at least one vaccine shot and more than 90% people have been fully vaccinated. The same epidemiologist (Feigl-Ding) believes that the major reason for the current surge is China’s ‘weaker’ vaccines which are most probably unable to protect people against the evolving Omicron virus variants. He said, "A deeper problem lies in the weaker CoronaVac (by SinoVac) and Sinopharm vaccines. Notice how even with 3 shots of main CoronaVac shot, neutralisation performance against newer recent #omicron variants is poor—this is bad. China isn’t using bivalent yet." Just to remind people with short memory how promptly the WHO had granted clearance to the Chinese vaccines while they had kept pending similar clearance to Indian Covaxin for months, which has now proved to be more effective.  The moot point, as it appears, is that China and the world is in a deep trouble once again.

Although the official Chinese machinery is either silent or discreet on related issues as usual but that China is indeed witnessing a phenomenal surge in Covid-19 infections is apparent from many leaked videos and reports from the mainland as well as reports in global media. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the Beijing Emergency Medical Centre had advised at the beginning of December 2022 that only critically ill patients must call for ambulances, pointing out that the emergency requests had jumped to about 30,000 a day from an average of just 5,000 in the past putting severe stress on the capacity of paramedics to respond. There are reports by CNN, BBC, Bloomberg, etc. too indicating the Chinese health care system getting overwhelmed. Similarly, a video shared by South China Morning Post showed many patients hooked up to intravenous drips in their cars owing to non-availability of beds in clinics and hospitals. Reports have also appeared showing offices, streets and shopping complexes in magacities like Beijing having a deserted look as well as panic-buying of medicines and Covid-19 testing kits.

According to the estimates of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), dealing with the global health statistics and impact evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle, China could register about 322,000 Covid deaths by April beginning in 2023 and end up witnessing more than a million deaths in 2023 if it continues with its existing decision of doing away with stringent Covid-19 curbs. The potential risk of infection owing to the lifting of curbs is more so apparent due to the New Year and ensuing month’s Lunar New Year holidays. The IMHE assessment added that with the emergence of highly transmittable Omicron variants, apparently China’s Zero Covid Policy was rendered ineffective; hence they decided to lift the restrictions. Going by the media reports, the number of dead due to Covid-19 is daily rising but China has not officially reported any deaths after 3rd December 2022. On the contrary, according to a British daily newspaper Financial Times, the staff at a Beijing crematorium divulged with the information about the cremation of thirty Covid victims on 21 December and reporters noticed several body bags at the hospital designated for the virus patients. Similarly, Reuters too has reported about the funeral homes in Beijing being overwhelmed with such corpses pending cremation.

Of course, the aforesaid assessment and projections are mostly based on tentative estimates and guestimates but the factual position may not be very far from reality. After all, we have seen more disciplined and transparent countries like Japan and South Korea in East Asia, which had rather successfully managed pandemic surge during the years 2020 and 2021 but it has now gone berserk there in 2022 with both the countries appearing in the list of top ten worst affected countries, at 6th and 7th position respectively. As on 30th December, South Korea has reported total Covid-19 cases over 29.06 million which constitutes over 56% of the population (32,156 deaths). Similarly, Japan has reported approximately 29.21 million cases on same date that represents about 23% of the Japanese population (57,266 deaths). When a vast and the most populous nationality like China and its top leadership, ignoring basic precepts of morality and ethics, opts for constant bluff and lies, they can fuzz data and information to hoodwink and mislead the world fraternity but cannot ward off the national disaster at cards and consequent sufferance of ordinary citizens with such gimmicks. This averment is so sad but unfortunately true.

As the Chinese government prefers to hide and fuzz facts from the world community or shares highly underrated data and information, this often compels the world media and foreign governments to derive own conclusions based on whatever data, information or trends becomes available. Ordinarily, the Western left or left-leaning media avoids highly critical or unsavoury reports on Communist China but the current Covid crisis in that country has made even papers like the New York Times (NYT) more vocal and resort to similar reporting. Citing the recent virus outbreak in Chongqing city, the NYT quotes Xi Jinping to have earlier ordered officials to continue mass testing, lockdowns and quarantines, which the officials strictly complied in late November 2022. But just ten days later, China suddenly abandoned the “Zero Covid” strategy thereby leaving the same officials to scramble for managing the looming disarray and uncertainty. Thus after micromanaging the Covid-19 strategy for almost three years, the country’s Supremo Xi Jinping has abruptly left the populace to improvise.

According to a report of the Bloomberg News Agency dated 24 December 2022, Beijing’s swift dismantling of Covid Zero restrictions has led to the unfettered spread of the highly contagious corona omicron variants in a population with low levels of natural immunity. Reportedly, about 37 million Chinese may have been infected with the virus on a single day during this week as per assessment of the government’s top health authorities. The report says that as many as 248 million people i.e. almost 18 percent of the population may have contracted the virus in the first twenty days of December as per minutes from an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission (NHC). The news agency has, however, clarified that these figures are based on inputs of people involved in the discussion but a formal request in the same context made by the agency was not responded by the NHC. Naturally, the estimated 37 million cases for 20 December as widely reported by global media is a dramatic deviation from the official figure of just 3,049 infections on the same day. Some other reports put the figure of around one million daily infections and five thousand daily deaths as the country grapples with the massive outbreak. There are reports that the outbreak is now fast spreading from the urban centres to rural areas of China, equipped with meager medical resources.

Zero Covid Policy Gone Wrong!

The global community has heard about the Chinese Zero Covid Policy for long which is basically a set of restrictions – most probably the strictest in the world – implemented to contain the spread of Covid-19 infections in China. This inter alia includes mandate to the Chinese local authorities to impose lockdowns across the neighbourhoods and/or cities even if only a few Covid-19 cases are found. Ordinarily, such lockdown would remain in place until no new infections are reported in that area. The Chinese top leadership has been claiming it a better and effective strategy over the methods adopted by the US and many European countries in the past.

Since the Chinese authorities are so often very discreet and secretive, there is no way to independently verify reported data and claims more so because the Chinese society and populace too have no access to the world media and social media platforms. As such the popular social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Facebook are officially blocked; the Google China, a subsidiary of Google, though exists but majority services including sensitive key search words are blocked by the Great Firewall in the PRC. Hence going by their own version, China could successfully avoid Covid-19 cases till around the middle of 2022 through strict enforcement of the “Zero Covid Policy”. However, this policy had put the common people under a lot of difficulties too all along the period and there were many instances of public resistance and protests.

After the 24 November fire incident in a city building leading to the death and injury of many people as narrated earlier, widespread protests by people across many large cities of China occurred, which was perceived akin to a mini revolt against the government. Consequently, the policy was reviewed at the apex level and apparently with the nod of Supremo Xi Jinping, the authorities relented and loosened up the Zero Covid Policy in most of the Chinese mainland. Coincidentally, the coronavirus BF.7 variant most probably derived from BA.5 variant of Omicron hit the population apparently sneaking through Hong Kong. This variant seems to be deadlier with peculiar features like being extremely communicable with a very short incubation period that also apparently does not respond to available Covid-19 antibody treatment. With the curbs lifted by the Chinese authorities, BF.7 variant has spread like wildfire and although globally much touted through the Chinese publicity gimmicks, the available Chinese vaccines, Sinopharm, Sinovac, etc., with a very low sero-conversion rate have been found less effective and whatever immunity produced by them also appears to be only short-lived.

 

The easing of ongoing stringent curbs under “Zero Covid” has exposed the mass Chinese population to virus, which lacks herd immunity unlike India and some other nations. Although China boasts of covering more than 90 percent population with complete vaccination but now reports are coming out that owing to various constraints, the vaccination uptake has been only around 40 percent in reality among the elderly people above the age of sixty years and people in this age group are reportedly suffering to the maximum extent during the current bout of coronavirus upsurge. As the daily number of new cases crossed the fourty thousand mark towards the end of November, the country also stopped reporting bulk asymptomatic cases in December 2022. China’s chief epidemiologist Wu Zunyou is believed to have opined that the country is experiencing the first of three expected infection waves this winter. According to some Public Health officials, the epidemic is likely to spread to all nooks and corners of country causing millions of infections and lakhs of deaths mostly in sixty plus age population. The Chinese government would face hard choices in the ensuing months in managing particularly country’s economic and schooling activities owing to pandemic.

Potential Risk to Other Countries

To analyze the potential risk and possible implications of the current Chinese Covid crisis to other countries, let’s see what had happened in 2019 around the same time just before the pandemic gripped the entire globe. The first case of coronavirus was identified in Wuhan in Hubei province as back as mid November 2019 (or perhaps even earlier) but China chose not to inform the world community till the end of December 2019 despite thousands of Chinese people falling sick. The WHO was officially informed by China on 31 December 2019 about the disease but the overseas travel was not restricted and thousands of Chinese people kept traveling from Wuhan to other countries in January 2020, although inland travel was severely restricted. Then on the occasion of the New Year itself, millions of Chinese people visited abroad on fun and leisure trips. The flights to and fro Wuhan were suspended only on 31 January 2020 but by that time the Covid-19 cases had already started showing up in countries like Italy, Iran and South Korea. Naturally, many corona positive Chinese people served as carriers and became a source on infection to local populace worldwide. Finally, when the WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic on 11 March 2020, it was too late to contain it.

After three years of global and domestic pandemic experience, some amount of confidence and self-assurance already exists in several countries across the globe including India, the US, the European Union countries, Brazil, Russia and others. The repeated waves of Covid-19 infections, vaccination of the majority populace in these countries, relatively good immunogenicity of vaccines vis-à-vis Chinese ones, and appearance of several variants of the virus in the past is likely to minimize the impact of the stated virulent BF.7 variant from China in these countries. Besides, many of these countries, where only a handful of BF.7 cases have been reported, have already developed certain level of herd immunity that could also be helpful in future.

As for China’s rival-neighbour and 2nd most populous country India is concerned, the country has been able to currently restrict about twelve hundred cases on the weekly basis with its five-fold strategy of test-track-treat-vaccination and adherence to Covid appropriate behaviour. In view of spurt in cases as witnessed in Japan, US, South Korea, Brazil and now in China, the Indian government has decided to further gear up and tighten the whole genome sequencing of positive case samples to track the variants through Indian SARS-Cov-2 Genomics Consortium network with a view to timely detect newer variants and take necessary health measures. In addition, the government has also decided to have random check on travellers coming from abroad while the state governments are issuing separate advisories to citizens about the appropriate Covid protocol such as regular use of masks in crowded places, social distancing on as required basis. Besides, India is also among the countries that have fairly well developed herd immunity from the past infections.

The United States has raised its concern but with a hope that China would be able to address the current COVID-19 outbreak more so because the virus is of a global concern given the Chinese GDP and size of economy. They believe, if China is stronger vis-à-vis Covid, it will be good for the world as well. However, this rampant home coming of the virus has certainly unnerved rest of the Asia, particularly the neighbours of China and countries having significant economic cooperation and people-to-people interface. Experts feel that the overall impact of the mutating virus could perhaps be mild but owing to its phenomenal transmission and communication ability, the Asian countries need to guard against the virus causing respiratory trouble during the ensuing winter. As most of the South and Southeast Asian countries already have had several infection waves and developed reasonable herd immunity, majority of them are unlikely to tighten curbs as of now despite the current Chinese crisis.

For illustration, the health minister of Singapore recently observed that they (China) are taking decisive steps to open up their economy and society which is bound to drive up infections. Then he added that Singapore is not worried because their resilience is high and they have already gone through three waves. His averment may indeed be true as so far over 40 percent of Singapore population has already been infected and it can reasonably be assumed that they already have certain level of herd immunity and the same might be true for many other Asian countries. Citing the experience of the Spanish flu of the previous century, Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection (APSCMI), is of view that the potential mutant viruses spreading out from China would be milder than earlier variants but more transmissible. Many experts, however, believe that the concerns of other countries are not unfounded because mutation was indeed likely as cases surge in China but they too agree that the new variants may not be as potent as the ones previously experienced. However, the chances of new mutant viruses being more transmissible with ability to overcome the protection people have against severe illness can not be entirely ruled out and in such eventuality the healthcare system of these countries could again be overwhelmed.

Impact on Global Economy

For years now, China has been a major manufacturing hub with a vast network of a supply chain across the globe for a variety of consumer goods, mobiles, computers and other electronic devices, office equipment, antibiotics, and so on. The current Covid-19 surge in the mainland is likely to throw China into a deep crisis severely affecting manufacturing, business and commercial activities. This may constrain global supply chains and consequent shortages for the whole world including essential items like antibiotics, electronics, and so on. Also the current virus explosion in China with a population of over 1.4 billion may also cause mutation and consequent new variants which might cataclysm into other countries of the world triggering another prolonged cycle of pandemic in various parts.

Since the outrage of Covid-19 experienced nearly three years ago, the world economy has already experienced a considerable global recession and only off late it has started improvement and recovery in various parts. The Chinese economy had greatly suffered during the year 2020 with a GDP growth only about 2.24 percent owing to Covid-19 pandemic and allied factors, subsequently shown rather miraculous recovery in 2021 with 8.11 percent growth but the trend has again reversed in 2022 with estimated growth of GDP to remain below 3.0 percent due to stringent curbs, inflation, high interest rates, etc. The prolonged lockdowns in the major cities under “Zero Covid” particularly Shanghai for a considerable period during the past two years has already had adverse effect on manufacturing business and weakened the Chinese economy. Now the current outbreak and surge in Covid infections is likely to have a disastrous impact on China’s economy and most probably the world as well.

Although collectively the ASEAN and European Union occupy top slots as trading partners but individually the US is the largest trading partner of China with significantly adverse trade imbalance. The US State Department has rightly recently expressed their concern about the Covid situation in China referring to their size of economy. According to them, if the Chinese economy is further constrained owing to a rapid surge of Covid-19 infections, it may have severe impact on the global supply chains leading to deterioration and delays of economic recovery in China and world as well. According to survey by the World Economics, the business confidence in China is currently at its lowest since 2013 and country’s GDP might manage to merely grow at the rate of 3% during this fiscal year. Although China has recently resolved to reopen but the phenomenal rise of Covid numbers in China might lead to re-tightening of curbs which will further deteriorate its economic growth. Therefore, any recession in China is bound to be a serious concern for the global recession and disrupted global supply chains.

Communist Nation Continues to Surprise world

On one hand, China continues with its hitherto fore opaque policy and almost blanket ban on reporting actual Covid-19 situation in the country despite wide reporting of the pathetic realities on ground by the international media based on leaked videos, imageries, reports and limited ground visits by reporters; on the other hand, it has also started taking measures to further relax the existing control measures after withdrawing its much touted Zero Covid Policy. For instance, the Chinese National Health Commission has announced to discontinue the current requirement of the inbound travelers to go into quarantine with effect from 8 January 2023 as a major step towards easing out curbs on its borders which was largely applicable and implemented since 2020. In yet another statement, the Chinese health authority has divulged with their resolve of downgrading Covid-19 from the existing top-level Category A to much less strict Category B.

The logic given behind this decision is that the disease has become less virulent and is bound to gradually evolve into a common respiratory infection. Further, the daily reporting of the disease cases will now be discontinued; instead, a monthly system i.e. once in a month for this will be adopted. The consequences of sudden withdrawal of the Covid curbs has already left the health care system and most hospitals across the nation scrambling to cope with a nation-wide surge of infections and consequent mismanagement and chaos as widely reported by the international media. They, however, maintain that if the outbreak becomes severe, the NHC will adopt so-called “closed management” to prevent the spread of infections and vaccinations in the elderly age group shall be accelerated. Needless to mention, periodicity of such decisions raise many eyebrows because by taking such measures China would now be putting other countries too at a greater risk of exposure and more waves of infections.

Epilogue

It is still a tangled mystery whether the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 causing Covis-19 disease is natural or manmade. China has not only scuttled every attempt by the other nations but also successfully created such conditions that the WHO experts team appointed for the purpose remained inconclusive on the subject. The role of Chinese government and experts remained suspicious and questionable throughout the Covid-19 crisis in as much as the Wuhan epidemic since late 2019 always appeared like a controlled experiment with intentional delays in sharing information with the world community, international travel restrictions were belatedly implemented by China, early virus samples were destroyed on the pretext of safety measure, independent investigations about the origin of virus were constantly stalled and denied by the Chinese government, adequate cooperation was not rendered to the investigating WHO team and intimidation tactics were applied with several neighbourly countries during the crisis to dilute and divert world attention from the subject.

Besides, the Virology Institute at Wuhan (epicentre of initial crisis) with the largest virus bank including Class 4 pathogens too has remained enigma till now and its existence there can’t be just a coincidence. The fact that no other virus in history has been found as virulent, fast spreading and mutating as SARS-CoV-2 through contact and air can easily put it in the category of a potent bio-weapon. An internet meme is in circulation “Papa, I am back” which may not be in good taste but is true unfortunately. The Chinese Communist Party headed by Xi Jinping actually runs the show in China and officially they don’t believe in any culture and religion, and therefore in morality and ethics too – the obvious reason why the Chinese government constantly indulges in bluffs and lies with no shame attached. The disastrous reports coming out of Beijing are indeed unprecedented and surprising because the reported developments have been unbelievably fast since the lifting of curbs. One could only sympathise with the hapless Chinese common citizens, who have to bear the brunt most.

31-Dec-2022

More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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