China’s zero-covid policies created a coronavirus tinderbox; it may have just ignited. But accurately tracking this conflagration of covid has become virtually impossible.
Years of strict lockdowns kept infections down but also prevented the buildup of immunity via infection. That immunity hole could have been filled by a robust vaccination campaign, but the country used less effective vaccines than other parts of the world and failed to reach those at highest risk of serious disease.
Now, as China’s government abandons covid control measures, the country with perhaps the largest population of immunologically susceptible people on the planet is facing a potentially catastrophic situation.
Earlier this month, China dismantled much of its testing system, and last week the government stopped reporting daily covid data, forcing epidemiologists to rely on anecdotal reports to understand where in the country the virus is spreading, and the damage left in its wake.
Those anecdotal reports paint a dire picture. Leaked hospital videos show an unprepared healthcare system buckling under pressure. Crematoriums are reporting a surge in demand as some models suggest that 9,000 people are dying each day in the country.
The Chinese government says that only about 5,200 have died of covid throughout the entire pandemic, with just about a dozen this month.
Grid spoke with epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, a public health researcher and author of the newsletter Your Local Epidemiologist. Jetelina has been closely following the situation in China, including how epidemiologists approach tracking an outbreak with scant official data and what impact this surge could have on the people of China and the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: What do we know about the current covid outbreak in China? What’s your sense for the reliability of reporting on cases, hospitalizations and deaths in China?