Janae Pierre: Welcome back to The Takeaway, I'm Janae Pierre filling in for Melissa Harris-Perry. Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the Chinese government instituted some of the most restrictive COVID policies in the world.
Their so-called “zero COVID” strategy meant massive lockdowns and quarantines over the past few years. There was mass testing and hastily constructed quarantine hospitals to isolate the sick. Then, in a stunning reversal in early December, the Chinese government announced a rollback of the Zero COVID policy, but the government's lack of a properly planned reopening is leading to chaos.
Cases have surged. Leaked notes from a Chinese health official estimates that 250 million people or 18% of the population may have been infected with COVID in the first 20 days of December and the effects of the Zero COVID policy and global inflation have put the country's economy in a tailspin. With me now to help us understand the situation in China is Keith Bradsher, Beijing bureau chief for TheNew York Times. Keith, thanks for joining us.
Keith Bradsher: Thank you.
Janae Pierre: Tell us what the situation is right now on the ground in China,
Keith Bradsher: A wave of COVID cases has passed through pretty much all of the country's cities and many of the smaller towns and villages over the past month. The pace at which it has moved is faster than probably anywhere else in the world because there was no effort to impose the kind of lockdowns that we saw in other countries during the first few months of 2020.
Instead, Chinese companies, particularly, in many cases, state-owned enterprises have even encouraged workers to continue coming to the office, coming to the factories unless they are too feverish to work but even if they are positive for COVID, they're encouraged to keep coming to work.
Janae Pierre: What was the reasoning for the Chinese Communist party's leadership to do a complete 180 reversal on their Zero COVID policy?
Keith Bradsher: There are several reasons why China abandoned its COVID policies so quickly. One of the reasons was economic. The exports from China to the United States plummeted 21% in November compared to November a year before. Foreign demand for Chinese goods at least for manufactured goods is weakening.
One of the several reasons for that is not just that Americans are spending more on services and travel and restaurants and so forth instead of on more manufactured goods for their houses, but it's also that many companies are beginning to look elsewhere to buy the goods that you see in Walmart or Target or other big stores. They're beginning to look more at India, at Mexico.
As these exports plummeted, you've seen a lot of job losses. 10 days ago, I was in Guangdong in Southern China. Block after block was just empty of people in the heart of the garment manufacturing and fabric district. There were whole buildings in which floor after floor had essentially empty rooms, often with the sewing machines still sitting on the desks and everybody had gone because there were so few orders.
At the fabric market, it was practically empty and the few people still there keeping their stalls open said, "Look, I have to be here because I still owe all this rent. I can't break my lease, but there's nobody buying any more fabric from me." There was a lot of economic distress. On top of that, you also had the health reason for abandoning the policy. COVID was spreading so fast in China by early December.
To some extent, it forced China's hand. They already had 40,000 cases a day. They had extremely high rates of infection each person infecting as many as 15 or 17 or 18 people because most people here lacked any immunity from prior infection and because there'd been practically known in Revaccinated in the past half a year. For health reasons also, it just spread very quickly.
Finally, there was a political dimension. You had a surge of street protests calling for the end of Zero COVID. Some of those protests were by young people with international exposure in big cities but you also had workers protesting. One of the most important protests was in Guangdong. That was one of the reasons I went to Guangdong.
A lot of workers there had lost their jobs and then they were locked down to wipe out a few cases of COVID. They were deeply offended at being unemployed and locked down and with little prospect of getting another job soon.
Janae Pierre: Stick with us, we'll be right back with more on COVID challenges in China when we return, this is The Takeaway.
I am Janae Pierre in for MHP and we've been speaking with Keith Bradsher, Beijing bureau chief for TheNew York Times about the recent about face the Chinese government has made on their Zero COVID policy and how it's affecting the country. Keith, how have people reacted to the government's policy shift?
Keith Bradsher: The reaction has tended to vary by age. Younger people tend to say it's about time. They were fed up with all of the restrictions, all of the difficulty in going out to restaurants, worrying that at any time you might be grabbed by the quarantine officers and taken away for 10 days just because you'd been anywhere near somebody who might be infected.
On the other hand, older people have tended to be dismayed. They're the ones who are most at risk here. There is essentially no Paxlovid available for treating people who are infected. Almost nobody here has been vaccinated since last May because the vaccination campaign in China ground almost to a halt last May and so vaccine protection has expired. What's more is that, in China, unlike in most other countries, the elderly are the least vaccinated. Many of them thought that they could continue to hide from the virus because China's COVID Zero policies were so effective, and so they now find themselves without vaccination facing a fast-spreading virus.
Janae Pierre: Help us understand the recent changes the Chinese government made in counting COVID deaths and what they're trying to accomplish with that.
Keith Bradsher: China has actually reemphasized an existing policy. It's not clear how much the policy has changed that it has been reiterated and is harder to follow right now. The policy is that a death can only be certified as having been from COVID if a panel of hospital experts within 24 hours of the death meets and jointly concludes that COVID was the direct cause of death specifically through respiratory failure. When you have hospitals that are overwhelmed with cases, it's very hard to assemble that panel, and there's a lot of informal pressure not to count deaths as COVID. Very few deaths are being counted as COVID right now.
Janae Pierre: Help us understand the effect that this about-face reversal has had on the party standing but also the effect that it has had on China's leader Xi Jinping.
Keith Bradsher: One of the mysteries here is how this may have affected China's top leader. Certainly he was somebody who was closely associated with the Zero COVID policy, and it is startling to see the policy so abruptly reversed. On the other hand, he still has a lot of strengths. He appears to have total control over the military and the security services.
He has just named a new foreign minister who is very much a protege of his ambassador Qin Gang, who has been until December 30th the ambassador to the United States. To the extent that he continues to be able to name the people he wants to the top jobs, it's not clear how much this very abrupt policy reversal for which the healthcare system seems so unprepared has actually hurt him.
Janae Pierre: Party leadership usually tries to assert control over the narrative, have they lost control of the narrative here?
Keith Bradsher: Their ability to control the narrative here has been eroded considerably. The sensors have been less quick to delete criticisms of the handling of the pandemic lately. That's partly because a lot of people are not entirely clear what the new policy is and why it was changed. You are hearing more criticism than you usually would of the failure to build more intensive care unit beds before the Zero COVID policy was reversed.
The failure even to stockpile ibuprofen to the point that doctors and nurses at hospitals sometimes cannot even get more than a half dozen tablets of ibuprofen for their own COVID illnesses, much less providing it to patients. In some categories, there has been a quick response and recovery. For example, there was a sudden shift several weeks ago when everybody wanted to wear an N95 mask instead of a surgical mask as they walked down the street because they really were frightened of the virus all of a sudden. For a week, you couldn't find an N95 mask anywhere, but there were all kinds of factories set up to make N95 masks in 2020.
A lot of them had just turned off the lights and the equipment was still sitting there somewhere and people went in, turned on the lights, started running them 24 hours a day, seven days a week and now N95 masks are not that hard to find. Other categories, they're still trying to catch up, and that has a lot of people very angry. Funeral homes, in many cases, are still very, very busy and are running flat out to try to accommodate all the deaths. Hospitals are overcrowded and have lots of people lying in beds in the corridors. The system has been overwhelmed in many ways, and getting control of that narrative when practically everybody in China knows about it is not easy for them.
Janae Pierre: Keith Bradsher is Beijing bureau chief for TheNewYorkTimes. Keith, thanks so much for your time today.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.