VNine months ago, Shanghai medic Zhang Wenhong wrote this sentence: “Maintaining normal life should be as important as the dynamic zero-Covid strategy”. A few days later, Shanghai was put into a total lockdown that brought normal life to a standstill.
Zhang, who had been the most prominent voice in Chinese corona politics until then, fell silent. His professional advice was no longer in demand. It was the time when ideological slogans supplanted scientific facts. Now Zhang Wenhong is back.
A day after the Chinese about-face in corona policy, he published an essay on Thursday whose hashtag has been viewed more than 560 million times on the Internet. The text provides answers to the question that interests many Chinese most at the moment: How do I know if I should go to the hospital if I have been infected with Corona?
imminent wave of infection
It is estimated that up to 60 percent of the Chinese population could become infected within the next few weeks. In many Beijing pharmacies, the fever medication was already sold out on Thursday because many residents stocked up on it as a precaution. Zhang’s answer to the question: only 0.5 percent of those infected should go to a hospital. The others should stay at home.
On Thursday, many on the Internet reminded that Zhang had said months ago everything that is now being spread as news in the state media and in press conferences by the health authorities. That the omicron variant is less dangerous than previous corona variants. That the protection of vulnerable groups is now the priority. And that older people in particular need to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
For these statements, Zhang was attacked by nationalists at the time and insulted as a traitor. They accused him of promoting Western methods. “In retrospect, you have to say that a lot of people owe him an apology,” wrote one now.
“Why didn’t you say that before?”
Zhang Wenhong wasn’t the only scientist to call for a new strategy in the spring after the more contagious omicron variant reached China in January. That was the moment when head of state and party leader Xi Jinping missed the exit from the zero Covid strategy. The country would have been spared a lot of hardship if he had already agreed to the changes that were announced in a ten-point plan on Wednesday. Opening in spring would also have been easier than now in winter, when the virus can spread more easily.
At that time, however, Beijing was concentrating on preparing for the Winter Olympics in February. They should prove the success of China’s corona policy. The so-called bubble was invented for this purpose, it was supposed to keep foreign athletes away from the population. To this day, China uses them when visiting politicians, most recently when Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited. After the Olympic Games, preparations for the party congress in October came to the fore. Xi viewed the zero-Covid strategy as an achievement of his second term. Their abolition was not politically opportune. Instead, the measures were further tightened to prove their supposed effectiveness against Omikron.
A Shanghai doctor summed it up in April with the apt formula “Now this disease has become a political virus”. The woman’s name was Zhu Weiping. The sentence comes from a recorded telephone conversation. The recording was circulated on the Internet. Zhu complained that the Shanghai municipal government no longer listened to the advice of experts. They would have recommended that infected people without symptoms or with mild symptoms should isolate themselves at home. As announced on Wednesday. “It’s like trying to prevent the flu. What other country is trying to prevent flu like this?” Zhu said at the time, before she too fell silent, like most honest scientists who didn’t want to spread the official slogans.
“Why didn’t you say that before?” This is a question many on the Internet are now asking the epidemiologist Liang Wannian, who has often been given the task of defending the zero-Covid strategy. In the past few days, a whole series of scientists have reported back to the public, which in the meantime had fallen silent. The fact that she was allowed to speak in state media was a sure sign that a new strategy was being worked on behind the scenes. Just over a week ago, Zhang Wenhong wrote that “all countries that have got the pandemic under control agree that the elderly must be protected”. So far, the idea that China should learn from the experiences of other countries has been taboo. After all, Xi had claimed that China’s corona policy was more successful than other countries’ methods.
The propaganda machine now has some trouble explaining the change of course. The official Xinhua news agency tried to look back on three years of “successful” fighting the pandemic. However, the word “zero Covid” no longer appears, as if the strategy never existed. It is noticeable that the new easing and measures have not yet been associated with Xi. This is probably because the outcome is uncertain.When the fight for intensive care beds begins, the question will be asked why the elderly were not vaccinated earlier – as experts had recommended.