qian27_HECTOR RETAMALAFP via Getty Images_chinacovidhospital Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

China’s Brutal COVID Winter

As most developed economies learned almost three years ago, reducing COVID-19 infection rates in high-risk populations requires self-distancing and other proactive measures on the part of individuals. Yet for far too many Chinese households, such precautions are not an option.

CHICAGO – Last month, China ended its zero-COVID policy, bringing a tumultuous end to restrictions after nearly three years. The suddenness of the move surprised nearly everyone. The process could have been much more gradual, with a slower shift from mass forced lockdowns to more flexible policies, such as voluntary self-quarantine and social distancing. Instead, the government has effectively thrown caution to the wind.

As a result, China is now having one of the worst outbreaks seen anywhere since the start of the pandemic. Hundreds of millions of people have been infected in the space of just a few weeks, and many experts now expect the death toll to exceed one million. Chinese social media are being flooded with harrowing accounts of personal loss and images of overwhelmed hospitals. While the exact infection and mortality figures are unclear, the big picture is undeniable: the Chinese people are fighting to survive.

The situation is reminiscent of what many other countries experienced in the first weeks of the pandemic. But, unlike in most developed economies, key features of China’s social and economic structure make it especially difficult for ordinary households to grapple with the virus.