By: Jim Geraghty – nationalreview.com – December 14, 2022
On the menu today: China is finally ending its draconian “Covid Zero” lockdown approach, but that raises a new set of problems — a massive population in crowded cities, with many unvaccinated elderly, and evidence suggesting that those homegrown Chinese vaccines aren’t all that effective. Is the Covid-19 pandemic that is in the rear-view mirror of much of the world about to strike with a vengeance in China? That’s going to be hard to tell, because the official Covid statistics from the Chinese government have been unbelievable nonsense propaganda from the beginning.
The World, Regarding China: Hey, Maybe We Can’t Trust These Guys Anymore
The Morning Jolt, back on December 28, 2021: “When Will the Rest of the World Call Out China’s Insanely Implausible Covid-19 Statistics?”
Apparently, it took about a year. This morning’s New York Times:
Despite those assurances, China faces much uncertainty over how the coming months will play out. Information is opaque and unreliable, which will make it difficult to gauge Beijing’s handling of the coming wave of Covid infections. The government’s desire to save face after an embarrassing retreat from its hallmark pandemic policy will only muddy the picture. . . .
Some of China’s data stretches the boundaries of reason for a country with a population of 1.4 billion people. China said there had not been a single Covid-related death since it lifted pandemic restrictions six days ago. By comparison, the United States reported 469 Covid-related deaths on Tuesday alone.
Since the early months of the pandemic, virologists have raised questions about China’s official mortality figures, challenging the way that the country’s hospitals classify Covid deaths. Instead of including people who died after contracting Covid-19 in official data, as is the norm in other countries, Chinese hospitals typically attribute deaths to pre-existing or chronic illnesses, such as cancer or a heart condition, they said.
Underreporting Covid cases is not unique to China, but the country is especially opaque.
To hear the Chinese government tell it, its country ranks 98th in the world in total cases of Covid-19 recorded, with fewer cases than Oman, Armenia, Honduras, Qatar, Estonia, Cyprus, and Kuwait. Never mind that the Chinese population of 1.4 billion is the largest in the world, the virus originated in China, and many Chinese live in close quarters in big cities where social distancing is impossible. The government’s official figure of 369,000 or so total cases is about half that of Paraguay, one-third that of Cuba, one-quarter that of Norway, one-fifth that of Slovakia, and roughly one-tenth that of Romania.
Back when the U.S. was reporting more than 200,000 cases of Covid-19 per day — approaching the peak of the Omicron wave — China insisted that across the whole country, there were nine cases. As I wrote back then, “Even if we want to give Chinese policies of city-wide lockdowns and quarantining people by welding apartment doors shut the broadest possible benefit of the doubt, it’s simply not plausible that a virus that has proven wildly contagious in every other country suddenly became shy and socially-awkward once it entered the jurisdiction of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Skepticism of China’s numbers and narrative isn’t just rising now, and it isn’t just confined to the New York Times. But it does feel like it took a long while for that well-justified skepticism to kick in and reshape the narratives around China here in the West. As early as February 2020, experts looked at the country’s outbreak numbers and concluded that they didn’t add up. You may recall in April 2020 when the country’s total number of cases reported increased by precisely 50 percent — and then remained flat for roughly two years.
This past April, the Washington Post editorial board concluded that, “The death toll reported by China in the early part of the pandemic was most likely a very small fraction of those who actually perished. . . . Biologically, the virus in China — the omicron BA.2 subvariant — isn’t that different from elsewhere. What does make China stand apart is a government that is intent on propagating a narrative that it is doing an exceptional job in managing the pandemic.”
The Economist runs an ongoing project looking at countries’ reported death figures, comparing them to the average death rate before the pandemic, and attempting to extrapolate the excess deaths compared to “normal.” Officially China has seen just 5,235 deaths from Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. The Economist calculates that since the pandemic began, China has seen anywhere from 8,900 to 2.6 million more deaths than it normally would have.
One other aspect of the Chinese government’s denial is an overestimation of the effectiveness of its homegrown vaccines. Those vaccines just don’t work as well as the ones developed in the U.S., Europe, and hey, go figure, even Russia. China says that 90 percent of its population is vaccinated, but somehow, when trying to mitigate a virus that is most deadly to the elderly, the Chinese government has failed to vaccinate the elderly: “The government announced a little over a week ago that around 30 percent of people aged 60 and up — or roughly 80 million people — were not vaccinated and boosted as of Nov. 11. Among those 80 or older, the ratio was closer to 60 percent.” (Considering the far-reaching power of the Chinese government to compel its citizens to obey orders, you can be forgiven for wondering if the failure to vaccinate the most elderly is entirely accidental.)
In fact, the Chinese government vaccinated citizens ages 18 to 59 before it vaccinated those 60 and older. This fueled the perception among some Chinese that the vaccine wasn’t safe for the elderly.
NPR lays out how some Chinese are hesitant to get shots of homegrown vaccines because of “product quality issues that have for years plagued manufacturing in China — including its production of pharmaceuticals. . . . Lax oversight and corruption during recent decades of breakneck economic growth has led to a string of product quality scandals in China — from baby formula cut with industrial chemicals to contaminated blood thinner and tainted vaccines.” Sometimes, you open a package of something made in China, like a new iPhone, and it works, right out of the box. Sometimes, you order a toy or kid’s bicycle and there are parts missing, extra parts, or the instructions are poorly written, and you can tell no one’s paying close attention to the products going out the door. Who wants to apply that hit-and-miss professionalism to something that’s put into your bloodstream?
This is the kind of uncomfortable subject some may prefer to avoid, lest they be accused of some sort of xenophobia. But the quality-control problems that plague Chinese manufacturers won’t go away if you pretend they don’t exist. Chinese citizens know which vaccines they trust:
Chinese mainland residents are rushing to Macao to get BioNTech’s messenger RNA-based COVID-19 vaccines as infections surge amid the government’s easing of pandemic controls.
Mainland tourist Ni Lin (an alias) went to the hospital of Macao University of Science and Technology Saturday, the last day of his visit to Macao, to receive the mRNA vaccine, also known as Comirnaty. He said more than 100 mainland tourists got the shot the same day, and many of them flew to Macao for that purpose alone.
mRNA vaccines, led by products developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are not approved in the Chinese mainland, even though they are widely used around the world.
Now, China has finally — finally — recognized that an endless series of intermittent lockdowns in the name of “Covid Zero” is unsustainable. But this means allowing the Chinese people to live their lives, not well vaccinated, with an extremely contagious virus floating around, with a whole bunch of unvaccinated elderly. Nobody knows exactly how this will shake out, but it won’t be good:
A study based on vaccination rates in March, published in Nature Medicinein May, found that lifting zero-COVID restrictions at that point could “generate a tsunami of COVID-19 cases” over a 6-month period, with 112 million symptomatic cases, 2.7 million intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, and 1.6 million deaths. Peak demand for ICU beds would hit 1 million, more than 15 times the current capacity.
There’s an interesting parallel between China’s unreliable health data and the country’s unreliable economic data. Year by year, China has released less and less economic data — by 2016, more than half of all indicators published by the national and municipal statistics bureaus in 2012 had been quietly discontinued, according to the Financial Times’ John Burn Murdoch. It’s a safe assumption that if the figures showed good news, the Chinese government would be bragging about them.
Earlier this year, Luis Martinez, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, examined the light from countries from satellite photos, year by year, and used that as a measuring stick of economic development. (More economic growth means more buildings, and more buildings means more light at night.) His research indicated that, “Autocracies overstate their yearly GDP growth by approximately 35 percent.” Maybe China’s exaggerations are a little less, maybe they’re a little more. But the implications of this longstanding embellishment of economic power are extremely consequential for geopolitical perceptions. Maybe China isn’t the rising superpower — about to overtake the U.S. — that so many inside and outside of China have claimed for years. Maybe it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, hiding a system that is a lot more inflexible, rickety, and slipshod than any Chinese leader was ever willing to admit. (If the Chinese economy is a lot weaker than it looks, held aloft by hype . . . well, that’s just one more example of the Fortune magazine cover jinx.)
Surely we all remember the old 1980s anti-drug public-service announcement, “This is your drugs . . . this is your brain on drugs . . . any questions?” Well, autocracies fry your brain, too. They make the entire country turn itself inside out to cater to the arbitrary whims of one man — whether that man is Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, or Kim Jong-un. Once the leader makes a decision, everyone has to pretend it was the right decision, no matter how much the evidence piles up that it was a terrible mistake. China can’t admit that other countries’ vaccines work more effectively, and it certainly can’t be seen asking for help. Better that millions of people die than Xi Jinping admit that the West has a better solution to anything, much less a problem as serious as Covid-19. This is the same mentality that had the Chinese government insisting that Covid-19 was not contagious for the first month or so of the outbreak.
It would be easier to ignore the problems of autocracies if their problems stayed within their own borders. But as we saw with Covid, they don’t. And in the case of Russia, autocrats periodically want to redraw their borders through military force.
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