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Beijing Braces for a COVID Wave
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Beijing Braces for a COVID Wave

As China reopens, the government downplays the danger of a major surge in infections.

Happy Friday! After a years-long delay, the National Archives finally released thousands of documents pertaining to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Thursday.

What are they trying to distract us from?

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • One day after the House passed a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government at existing levels through December 23, the Senate voted 71-19 on Thursday to do the same. When President Joe Biden signs the legislation into law later today, it’ll avert a government shutdown that would’ve otherwise gone into effect Saturday morning. The stopgap measure—which was supported by a number of Senate Republicans but only nine Republicans in the House—buys appropriations negotiators an additional week to hammer out the details of a larger spending package for fiscal year 2023. Some conservatives, including Rep. Chip Roy, have been harshly critical of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for working with Democrats to pass the spending package now, rather than wait for Republicans to retake the House majority in a few weeks.
  • The Senate also voted 83-11 on Thursday to pass the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes and directs about $850 billion in defense- and military-related spending. The measure—which has already passed the House with bipartisan support—repeals the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate and is about $50 billion larger than President Biden’s request, but the president is expected to sign it into law regardless.
  • The Commerce Department reported Thursday that U.S. retail sales fell 0.6 percent month-over-month in November, the largest such decline this year and another sign consumers are wary of a slowing economy, spending less on cars, home projects, and holiday-related purchases. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 750 points Thursday on the news, as investors price in the likelihood of a recession.
  • The White House announced Thursday that, ahead of a possible winter surge, the Biden  administration is resuming its partnership with the U.S. Postal Service to send government-purchased COVID-19 testing kits to Americans who request them through or at select schools, community health centers, rural health clinics, and long-term care facilities throughout the country. Tests can be requested now and will ship starting the week of December 19. 
  • The average number of weekly confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States increased about 48 percent over the past three weeks according to CDC data, while the average number of weekly deaths attributed to the virus—a lagging indicator—increased 2 percent. About 31,300 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, up from about 21,900 three weeks ago.
  • The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced Thursday that outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker will succeed Mark Emmett as president of the organization beginning March 1, 2023. Baker, a moderate Republican, last year opted against running for a third term in office. 
  • The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—fell by 20,000 week-over-week to a seasonally adjusted 210,000 last week, remaining near historic lows and indicating the labor market remains tight.

China’s Rocky Road to Reopening

An elderly man receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Qingzhou in China’s eastern Shandong province. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Thursday morning, readers perusing the People’s Daily—the Chinese Communist Party’s primary mouthpiece—found some marvelous news. “After three years of efforts, we have the conditions, mechanisms, systems, teams and medicine to lay the foundation for an all-round victory in the fight against the epidemic,” the paper announced, per a translation

China’s propaganda apparatus has executed a dizzying pivot in recent weeks, switching from emphasizing the dangers of COVID-19—and the importance of embracing the harsh lockdowns that had come to define the country’s pandemic response—to arguing new variants aren’t that lethal and China’s longstanding mass testing and forced quarantine policies were no longer necessary. What changed? Several weeks of the most open protest against the Chinese Communist Party in over 30 years.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government’s triumphant tone doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground—where the CCP has long presented incomplete or flat-out inaccurate data. The end of mass testing has further artificially reduced case counts. China’s National Health Commission has given up on reporting asymptomatic cases, and the 2,157 new symptomatic cases reported Thursday were likely a massive undercount. Hong Kong, for comparison’s sake, reported more than 13,000 cases Thursday despite a population about 0.5 percent that of mainland China’s. And while Johns Hopkins recorded 916 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the United States Thursday, China reported none. 

Anecdotal data suggests case counts are spiraling upward. Beijing hospitals reportedly saw about 19,000 patients with flu-like symptoms last week—more than six times the count a week before—and a video posted online and geolocated by Reuters showed patients lined up outside a clinic receiving intravenous drips. Though official lockdowns are no longer shutting down broad swaths of Beijing, sick workers and nervous citizens staying home have reportedly left its restaurants and shops quiet. “This thing came on like a runaway freight train,” Beijing-based lawyer James Zimmerman wrote Wednesday, estimating 90 percent of his officemates had caught COVID. “Our ‘work at home’ policy is now ‘work at home if you’re well enough.’” Chinese people have cleared stores of cold medicines, traditional remedies, and vitamin C-rich foods in their efforts to treat COVID-19 at home or stave off infection.

Despite years to prepare, China remains vulnerable to a major surge. It has a less extensive primary care system than the U.S., so patients typically visit hospitals sooner. And while the U.S. has 25 critical care beds per 100,000 people, China reportedly has less than four. Officials can quickly construct new facilities, but may have trouble finding enough qualified staff. Some reports already echo stories that streamed out of hospitals in the U.S. as the pandemic took hold. A doctor in southern Guangdong province told Bloomberg a surge of patients has left her “exhausted and depressed,” skipping meals and water breaks during 10-hour shifts to avoid removing her face mask. “I have a one-year-old daughter and 70-year-old mother at home,” Dr. Sophia Qu said. “I need to make sure I don’t bring the virus to them.”

China’s vaccine rollout also still has major gaps. Officials claim more than 90 percent of the population has received at least two doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, but even if that’s true, the CCP has eschewed the West’s mRNA vaccines in favor of its own, less effective shots. Only about 40 percent of China’s elderly population—the group most susceptible to the virus—has received the three doses considered necessary to provide rigorous protection. China has also resisted adopting most Western treatments, but did recently approve Pfizer’s Paxlovid and are reportedly planning to expand access beyond high-risk patients in hospitals.

Beijing’s resistance to Western assistance seems unlikely to soften. After White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that the U.S. stood ready to offer help, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin asserted that China would be just fine. “We have institutional advantages,” he said. “We will certainly be able to smoothly get through the peak of the epidemic.”

Others aren’t so sure. “They bet on one horse [and] that horse got them through the first part of this pandemic, but they didn’t have Plan B,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told The Dispatch. “Given the size of China, I could easily see a million deaths.” Various researchers have modeled dire death tolls, depending on what policy steps Beijing takes and how people respond. In May, a paper from researchers at Shanghai’s Fudan University projected more than 1.5 million deaths in six months if restrictions lift without access to antiviral drugs. Other estimates have ranged from less than 1 million to more than 2 million during reopening. Even a snapback to restrictive policies—if it came without better vaccine rollout and other steps—could prove ineffective in mitigating deaths. “Authorities have let cases in Beijing and other cities spread to the point where resuming restrictions, testing and tracing would be largely ineffective in bringing outbreaks under control,” analysts at Eurasia Group said in a note Thursday. “Upward of 1 million people could die from COVID in the coming months.”

Still, Chinese authorities are continuing their cheery pronouncements and planning for the economy to rebound to 5 percent gross domestic product growth next year. Grim economic reports may be fueling the reopening drive—according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, retail sales declined 5.9 percent year-over-year in November, industrial production growth halved from October to November, and unemployment hit 5.7 percent. 

Between the protests and the economic hemorrhaging, officials may see little choice but to open up—but that doesn’t mean this new pandemic phase won’t take its own toll. “There’s an ad on television that says, ‘You can pay me now or you can pay me later,’” Schaffner said. “The Chinese are in that position. They didn’t pay on the front end, but now they’re having to pay as they open up again.”

Worth Your Time

  • Having already spent too much of their lives all-consumed by social media, a small group of self-described “Luddite” high school students in Brooklyn are carving time out of their busy schedules to interact with each other—and themselves—without their phones. In a piece for the New York Times, Alex Vadukul interviews high schoolers like “Luddite Club” founder Logan Lane about why they’re ditching smartphones for flip-phones—or in some cases, no phones at all. “For the first time, she experienced life in the city as a teenager without an iPhone,” Vadukul reports. “She borrowed novels from the library and read them alone in the park. She started admiring graffiti when she rode the subway, then fell in with some teens who taught her how to spray-paint in a freight train yard in Queens. And she began waking up without an alarm clock at 7 a.m., no longer falling asleep to the glow of her phone at midnight. Once, as she later wrote in a text titled the ‘Luddite Manifesto,’ she fantasized about tossing her iPhone into the Gowanus Canal.”

Presented Without Comment 

Also Presented Without Comment 

Toeing the Company Line

  • On Thursday’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Steve, and David debate how cooked Trump 2024 looks, discuss Ron DeSantis’ attempt to court the vaccine-skeptic faction of the GOP, Sam Bankman-Fried’s arrest, and China’s COVID-19 dilemma. Plus: Are Marjorie Taylor Greene’s antics even worth discussing?
  • With Jonah across the pond, Chris Stirewalt grabbed The Remnant steering wheel for a conversation with sociologist Richard Alba about America’s changing racial makeup and the increasing prevalence of Americans born from mixed families. Can we rely on Census data? What does assimilation mean in America today? And how can we create more opportunities for young Americans to move into? 
  • You knew Nick wouldn’t be able to resist diving into Trump’s new NFT collection. “I don’t think the campaign began as a grift. But it may be, to borrow a term, ‘transitioning,’” he writes in Thursday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒). “It must be dawning on him and his cronies that there’s a fair chance he’ll end up either losing the primary or having to contrive some embarrassing pretext to withdraw to spare himself the ignominy of an impending loss. If they’re not going to get a second term in the White House out of this, they need to get something out of it.”
  • In this week’s edition of The Current (🔒), Klon breaks down the recent hack into the FBI’s InfraGard website, provides his thoughts on new work restrictions for former intelligence officials, and shares three encouraging developments heading into 2023.
  • On the site today, Audrey reports on Kevin McCarthy’s fight for the speakership ahead of next month’s vote, and Kevin contemplates whether outgoing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had the authority to effectively outlaw her state’s death penalty.

Let Us Know

Do you think the recent protests in China or concerns about the economy played a bigger role in the CCP’s decision to loosen pandemic restrictions? What, if anything, do you think could convince China to adopt Western vaccines?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.