The Tragic But Teachable Moment of China’s Relaxed COVID Policy

China recently relaxed its COVID policy and the virus is now running rampant. Though exact numbers are not available, we are hearing about overburdened hospitals, emptied pharmacy shelves, and corpses backing up at crematoria. There are also reports about the government expanding hospitals and ICUs and closing down schools, so though “Zero COVID” is no longer in effect, the country has not devolved to the “let it rip” approach of the US and other Western nations.

This turn of events is, first and foremost, an unalloyed tragedy. We should all be hoping that suffering will be minimized as soon as possible. The people of China are other human beings in the world, fully deserving of our compassion. Ultimately, borders are fiction and culture is superficial and we’re all just one family. That’s what I personally believe anyway. I don’t pray, but if I did, China would be at the top of my list.

This tragedy is also a major teachable moment and will remain so for some time to come as events unfold over the next few months. I stress that everyone will stand to learn something, regardless of where they are in the COVID debate. Given that what China did was so different for so long, they were a “control” of sorts compared to the US and the West. Or vice versa, rather, as the control in a study is the group that doesn’t receive treatment. Regardless, for people who are truly interested to learn more about the global phenomena of SARS-CoV-2—no matter what they believe now—what happens next will be instructive. We must then press for policy to change in sensible ways based on what is revealed.

Doubtless, Western establishment voices in government and media will have their own spin, which we should take with a big grain of salt. Their interest is to demonize China because they view it as a current economic rival and a future military adversary. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” would more properly have been called, “putting China in the cross-hairs.” Corporate media outlets that criticized China for being “authoritarian” during Zero COVID and that cheered on the recent protests there, are now painting Xi and the government as uncaring for current suffering. The message of these elite institutions to China is, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

The broad stroke narrative of the Western media bears some examination. The story we’re being told is: people protested, the government eased policy, people are suffering. Without any apparent self-consciousness, the establishment press is both laying the blame for the tragic results of easing Zero COVID squarely on the Xi administration andcrediting Chinese citizens for forcing the change. Those of us who have participated in protests in the US roll our eyes: when we protest it’s disruption but when they do, it’s people power. See also Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc. Plus which, the actual motivation for relaxing Zero COVID might be far less romantic; China’s economy experienced shrinking in 2022 and Xi had already discussed changes in COVID policy to address this earlier in the year. In fact, restrictions were already easing in November (and COVID numbers were allegedly already rising before too). But the facts don’t matter, just the message, which is: “China bad.”

Many ordinary people, liberal to conservative, have absorbed the relentless Sinophobic propaganda, which is no surprise given the sophistication and ubiquity of the corporate media. A message is implanted and people quickly adopt it into their own worldview and rhetoric, depending on their political affiliation. So you can spot a right-winger because they screech about “the CCP,” while D-leaning people wring their hands over “human rights” concerns of dubious provenance. The truth, of course, is far more nuanced than we are led to believe, but that story is too difficult to tell for professionals whose salaries depend on them not understanding it. (For an alternative view of China’s COVID policies in 2020, see my review of the book, “Capitalism on a Ventilator,” or listen to my podcast interview with the book’s editor.)

Therefore, beware the establishment and the partisans. They are motivated by class interests and team spirit, not the facts. All that matters to them are narratives that support their goals and beliefs.

But viruses don’t operate within the constraints of human belief systems. They have their own all-too-material reality. Since the agricultural revolution, humanity has been struck time and time again by infectious disease, many of them zoonotic in origin, as COVID is (whether or not it came from a lab or a wet market). This is a serious situation and we need to drop the zealotry and try to grok what’s really happening.

The contrast between COVID policies in China and the West was significant and now is less so, which presents an opportunity to learn more about how COVID operates and the efficacy of varying approaches and treatments. Some initial topics:

+ China’s population has for the most part so far been spared, while in the West, many people have suffered multiple infections. Differences in death rates, recovery times, long term effects, etc., will be telling.

+ In terms of vaccines, China has used different technology (their seven vaccines are based on inactivated viruses, not MRNA) and the profile of their vaccinated population skews younger; older people were considered more vulnerable to possible negative effects of the vaccine—plus some were vaccine hesitant—so their rate of vaccination is lower than in the US, where older people were prioritized.

+ Chinese people also have an ancient and proven system of herbal medicine to which many are now turning due to the suddenly overburdened conventional health structures. Herbal medicine in the West has not been subjected to the same rigor, and is not as widely available.

I’ll admit I’m not holding my breath that many true believers from any corner of the debate will budge on what are by now their entrenched dogmas. No matter what happens in China, it will be spun one way or another—or another—to match tightly-held narratives, facts be damned. <smh>

Which is really too bad. Selfishly, as one who has remained outside the established camps, I’d love more company. Can’t there be more people who are genuinely curious? Who are neither a) slavishly adherent to establishment narratives because they’re establishment narratives, or b) reflexively and stubbornly contrarian for the sake of being contrarian? For example, perhaps China’s example will show how a) the US’s vaccine-centric policy has been driven by it’s ease of monetization and relative lack of social disruption, rather than by efficacy or “the science,” and, b) how anti-vaxxer claims that deaths attributed to COVID are predominantly due to MRNA injury are bunk.

But more important than such internecine feuds is that we are a species facing a real threat. Mere prudence would dictate an honest appraisal of China’s plight and methodology, since it’s in everybody’s common interest to face this challenge together, collectively, with honesty and open eyes.

People are dying now, this very moment, for us to have this lesson. That sucks. Let’s not make it suck more by squandering it.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press