China careens off the Zero-COVID highway

Bart Édes
5 min readFeb 4, 2023
Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

China’s about-face on how to tackle COVID has caused heads to spin at home and abroad. After nearly three years of relentless enforcement of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s signature policy of COVID eradication, the government issued new guidelines easing some of its strict zero-COVID policies in early December 2022. Official propaganda proclaiming that zero-COVID was a superior approach to foreign models, and essential to keep the Chinese people safe, gave way to a new message that, well, the virus wasn’t so threatening after all.

Epidemiologists warned that hundreds of thousands of people would die due to the sudden change in rules. Despite the risk, the Chinese government has forged ahead with a messy reopening that has jettisoned mass testing, quarantines, lockdowns of populated areas, and contact tracing. The National Health Commission has been selective with the details it shares on case counts and COVID-related deaths to avoid embarrassment and criticism of the new course of action. Medical workers have been discouraged from attributing an infected person’s demise to COVID when completing death certificates.

Officials advised that deaths would only be attributed to COVID if the virus directly caused respiratory failure, a narrow definition that would yield a substantially lower number of deaths. The single-digit death total announced nearly two weeks after the new guidelines were introduced was risible. The World Health Organization publicly called upon China to release more data on its COVID situation to improve understanding of transmission dynamics and highlighted the underreporting of COVID-related mortality.

Authorities then began to acknowledge a higher death toll, but even the number offered in mid-January (close to 60,000) grossly understated the true number of fatalities by that time. Evidence from satellite data, self-reported information, online search results, and open-source data revealed an explosion in COVID-related deaths belying official statistics.

The use of COVID-related terms in Baidu, the Chinese language internet search engine, provided a proxy for the fast rise in cases and deaths. Search volumes for “funeral services” already began to surge towards the end of December.

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Bart Édes

Author of Learning from Tomorrow: Using Strategic Foresight to Prepare for the Next Big Disruption