China braces for new wave of Covid cases, predicted to reach 65mn weekly

People line up for a test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a swab collection station in Beijing on November 20, 2022. – AFP

China is bracing for a possible new wave of Covid-19 infections, with estimates suggesting the number of cases could reach 65 million per week by the end of June. The forecast is alarming for a country that only a few months ago implemented the strictest Covid control measures in the world. However, in response to the latest variant known as XBB or omicron, the Chinese government and public have been relatively quiet.

About six months ago, China dismantled a vast infrastructure to deal with the virus. This infrastructure includes strict lockdowns, widespread testing, mandatory quarantines, and strict mask requirements. However, the current increase in cases, driven by the omicron variant, has indicated a lackluster response from both the government and the public.

Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory disease expert, unveiled the data at a medical conference in Guangzhou, revealing that a wave of infections was expected to begin in late April. Its modeling indicated that China could witness up to 40 million infections per week, rising to 65 million by the end of June. To put that in perspective, at its peak in January, more than 5 million cases were reported every week in the United States. However, China recently stopped providing weekly case updates, making it difficult to ascertain the true extent of the current outbreak.

While the U.S. is engaged in discussions with allies and partners regarding China’s second wave of Covid-19, the State Department has not confirmed whether travel restrictions are being considered. The focus is on monitoring the situation in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before updating travel guidelines. The US government emphasizes the importance of cooperation with China on global health issues and maintains open lines of communication.

In the previous Omcron wave in December and January, a different strain of the virus wreaked havoc in China, infecting millions and overwhelming hospitals and cemeteries. However, immunity can then wane, increasing the risk of reinfection. Zhong noted that the government has given initial approval for two vaccines targeting the XBB subtypes, and more approvals may come soon.

China’s subdued response can be attributed to its efforts to revive the economy and reassure foreign businesses, including from the United States. A return to stricter restrictions could have a negative impact on businesses, so stability and clarity are being sought to facilitate planning.

Public perception of the current wave is also affected by changes in government messaging. There is less media coverage of fear-mongering, no scary videos to warn people, and no strict measures like lockdowns. As a result, some individuals have reported experiencing milder symptoms this time around. However, there are also concerns about whether the initial drastic measures were necessary given the current situation.

The landscape has changed significantly since the early days of the pandemic, and China faces new challenges with the omicron variety. The country is walking a delicate balance between managing the spread of the virus and promoting economic stability, while also addressing public sentiment and ensuring clarity in communication.

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