COVID rapidly spreads in China as government eases strict quarantine rules

China is grappling with the rapid spread of COVID-19 after the government began rolling back its zero-COVID restrictions earlier this month. Now, cases are spiraling across towns and cities, hospitals are overburdened, medical staff are outnumbered and crematoriums are running out of space. Judy Woodruff reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After three years of strict COVID restrictions, China is dramatically loosening up on rules and opening its borders. Starting in January, the government will scrap quarantine requirements for international travelers. It is the latest move rolling back the government's so-called zero COVID policy.

    But, as a result of easing restrictions, the virus is now rapidly spreading across towns and cities. Hospitals are overburdened, medical staff are outnumbered, and crematoriums are running out of space.

    In Beijing, it's a struggle to save lives. Front-line workers are battling an unprecedented surge in COVID-related hospitalizations. Emergency wards are overcrowded and there's a shortage of beds in hospitals. Patients are being treated on chairs, in corridors.

    Medical staff, many of them working sick, are overwhelmed with critical patients.

  • Zhou Ying, Head Nurse, Peking University Hospital (through translator):

    All the patients who come here have oxygen levels at only 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent, or so. So, we feel a lot of pressure when it comes to severe cases. Our medical staff fell ill one after another, and many colleagues are still working despite being sick.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This dramatic surge of COVID cases was triggered by a sudden ease in restrictions. On December 7, Beijing abruptly ended its zero COVID policy that had imposed stringent measures like mandatory quarantine, mass testing and strict lockdowns on residents, all this since 2020.

    Earlier this month, widespread public protests across China led the regime make a U-turn. But the quick withdrawal from COVID protocols has led to desperation and tragedy. In heartbreaking scenes, people are queuing up outside funeral homes and crematoriums, competing for a bit of space for a dignified farewell to their loved ones.

    While some cities are reporting some numbers, as of the weekend, the national government is no longer reporting official COVID data, making it impossible for the public to know the true scale of the pandemic. The most accurate information people have are videos posted on social media of piled-up body bags and uncounted deaths across China.

    For more on China's surge in COVID cases, we turn to Dr. Chris Beyrer. He's director of the Duke University Global Health Institute. And Lynette Ong, she's a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, where she focuses on China. Her latest book is "Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China."

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Dr. Beyrer, let me begin with you.

    How serious is the COVID situation right now in China?

  • Dr. Chris Beyrer, Director, Duke University Global Health Institute:

    Well, it's very serious indeed, Judy, although precise numbers are very difficult to come by.

    The official Chinese numbers don't look anywhere near as dire as what is generally being understood from hospitals, from morgues. The challenge here, the real issue is that zero COVID was never going to work against Omicron. It's too infectious. And the Chinese did not get the elderly population vaccinated with high-efficacy vaccines in time.

    So they now have lifted zero COVID, and they have an enormous population that's vulnerable to COVID.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do we know? That's exactly what I want to ask you about. What do we know about why they didn't get more people vaccinated, and especially the most vulnerable, the elderly?

  • Dr. Chris Beyrer:

    Well, they started with Chinese-manufactured vaccines using very old technologies.

    And these vaccines were never high-efficacy, but they were based on the original Wuhan variant. They're still using vaccines based on the Wuhan variant. And that variant is extinct. It has not been circulating for well over a year anywhere.

    What China is dealing with is the Omicron subvariants, much more infectious and for which their vaccines have very low efficacy. So, what they have really failed to do is use high-efficacy vaccines where they're needed most, and that's why they're in such dire straits.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that is a government decision? I mean, what do we know about who decided to have things turn out this way?

  • Dr. Chris Beyrer:

    Well, to be fair, you have to remember that, early on, the high-efficacy vaccines, particularly the mRNA vaccines, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, were not widely available because they were pre-purchased by the U.S., E.U. and other wealthy countries.

    But, in the last year-and-a-half, there's been, of course, much more vaccine supply worldwide. There have been many — much more availability of higher-efficacy vaccines. And it isn't really clear why they didn't take the opportunity to immunize. They have added more of their own new homegrown vaccines, but they're still using vaccines of either uncertain or low efficacy.

    And they really, really held on tightly to the zero COVID policy. Many China watchers would say that this was because of the Party Congress and the idea that they couldn't reverse course until that Party Congress was over. Now that it is over, and they have reversed course, it really is a lost window of opportunity to get the elderly vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And a deadly, a very deadly, life-costing set of decisions.

    Professor Ong, what's your understanding of why the government stuck with this policy for so long, which is turning out to be leading to so many deaths?

    Lynette Ong, University of Toronto: So, on your question, Judy, about why the vaccination rate in China is so low, even though they have got three years to prepare for it, so this has been — zero COVID has been Xi Jinping's signature policy right from day one.

    And a year into it, I think COVID has ceased to become a public health issue. It has really become a political issue, an issue that has allowed President Xi to go out there to really showcase the superiority of the — China's governance model in protecting its people's lives, often pointing to one million deaths in the United States, saying that — the failure of Western democracies in protecting lives.

    And it is also used to control people's movement leading up to the 20th Party Congress. So, it's really become more political than public health issue, which is why I think vaccination has been very low on the priority.

    And in the last six weeks or so, there has been extraordinary protests throughout major cities in China, even asking President Xi to step down. And given intense pressure from all sides, President Xi has decided to do this 180-degrees reversal, which has caught hospitals unprepared.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And does the public understand what's going on here, that their government has made these decisions that are now leading to this COVID massive crisis?

  • Lynette Ong:

    I think people very much understand what is going on, even though there's a lot of lack of transparency. There's no data about COVID infection, about mortality rate, or hospital crowded — how crowded it is.

    People are speculating in the dark. But I think people know that the situation is pretty dire. And they are taking — they are taking really things in into their own — into their own hands. Some of them are going to the black market, and some of them are trying to secure over-the-counter pain — painkillers and medicines from Hong Kong and Macau.

    But things are really not looking good at the moment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And is blame now falling on the shoulders of the Xi Jinping regime?

  • Lynette Ong:

    That is an interesting question.

    I think we have to wait and see who — whether we are going to see a scapegoat that is going to be attributed the blame to. But, in all likelihood, I think the Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy is really going to suffer, right, because public trust has been so much eroded in the last couple of weeks, with the protests, as well as the 180-degrees reversal.

    The reversal in rhetoric, telling people that COVID is really dangerous, and overnight saying that there's nothing to be worried about, I think Chinese people is not one to be — to be easily fooled.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Beyrer, what do you — what do we see in the weeks and the months to come in China in terms of COVID? What should we expect?

  • Dr. Chris Beyrer:

    Well, I'm afraid we're — we expect many more cases, unfortunately, considerably more loss of life, because people have not been immunized with high-efficacy vaccines.

    There's a U.K. estimate out that perhaps 5,000 deaths a day are already occurring. There could be considerably more than that coming. And the catchup of immunization is going to take longer than it would in other settings, because WHO has mandated that these low-efficacy Chinese vaccines really require at least three doses.

    So, you have to — it's not just two doses, but also a boost. And catching up with boosting is very challenging, and it takes time, as we know from the U.S.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Professor Ong, who among the Chinese population is going to be suffering the most?

    You mentioned some people do have access to information, to medicine on the black market, but who mainly is going to suffer?

  • Lynette Ong:

    I think people in the rural areas, because the distribution of public health is very uneven.

    For a long time, there has been neglect on the health system in the countryside. ICU beds are in shortage in China in general, but particularly acute in rural areas. So, everything else being equal, we are likely to see more casualties in rural China, unfortunately.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is such a tragic situation so many levels.

    Professor Lynette Ong at the University of Toronto and Dr. Chris Beyrer at the Duke University Global Health Institute, thank you both.

  • Lynette Ong:

    Thank you.

  • Dr. Chris Beyrer:

    Thank you.

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