Medical workers of an air-inflated testing lab prepare to receive nucleic acid samples in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan Province, Sept. 5, 2022. (Xinhua/Liu Qiong)
With the 2022 ITTF World Team Table Tennis Championships opening Friday, some 60 teams from countries and regions across the globe are gathered in Chengdu, a city in the southwest of China which is restoring the normal order of life less than a month after a COVID-19 resurgence.
Chengdu had tightened its epidemic control measures on Aug. 29 with mass nucleic acid tests and shutdown of public entertainment facilities. Three weeks later, the city lifted the control measures.
It is a fresh example of how China's current dynamic zero-COVID policy works. The essence of the approach is early detection and quick response based on the characteristics of the virus variants, with the aim of curbing flare-ups in the shortest possible time and at the lowest social costs.
If China fails to adopt the policy, the consequence could be disastrous for a country with 1.4 billion people, including 267 million aged 60 or above and more than 250 million children. Just look at what happened in other countries.
According to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in June 2022, while more than 40 percent of adults in the U.S. reported having COVID-19 in the past, 19 percent are currently still having "long COVID," the long-term physical fallout of coronavirus infections.
People with post-COVID conditions may experience physical and mental health problems of different types and combinations of symptoms happening over different lengths of time, including malaise, fatigue, breathing challenges, cardiovascular abnormalities, migraines, depression and anxiety, among other conditions.
Data released in September 2022 by Britain's Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that an estimated 2 million people in the country, or 3.1 percent of the population, were believed to have had some form of "long COVID" at the end of July.
"Long COVID" symptoms have "adversely affected the day-to-day activities of 1.5 million people," said ONS.
Given China's population density and demographic structure, once the epidemic control is loosened, the country will face the consequences of widespread virus, severe illness and a huge number of deaths, said Zhang Boli, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering and an expert in traditional Chinese medicine.
According to a study published in Nature Medicine in May 2022, China could see an Omicron wave resulting in approximately 1.55 million deaths and a projected intensive care unit (ICU) peak demand of up to 15.6 times the existing capacity, should its current dynamic zero-COVID strategy be lifted.
Research published in Nov. 2021 in China CDC Weekly estimated that even in a highly underestimated outbreak scenario under the most optimistic assumptions, if China adopts the approaches of the United States or Britain, the number of daily new confirmed cases in China would likely rise to over 630,000 or at least 270,000, and that of daily new severe cases would reach more than 22,000 or at least 9,600.
The consequences are not limited to the epidemic itself.
Taking the United States as an example. Life expectancy, the most basic measure of national well-being, in the United States declined a shocking 2.7 years from 2019 to 2021, shrinking from 78.8 to 76.1 years, its lowest level since 1996, according to a report recently released by the National Center for Health Statistics.
The report said the decline in life expectancy since 2019 is largely driven by the pandemic. COVID-19 deaths contributed to 74 percent of the decline from 2019 to 2020 and 50 percent of the decline from 2020 to 2021.
Meanwhile, the life expectancy in China in the same period increased from 77.3 years to 78.2 years.
John V. Walsh, until recently a professor at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, said that comparing the COVID death tolls in China and the United States "puts the United States to shame." He said in an Australian public policy journal this month that Western-centric media "tells a different story."
"Had China followed the same course as the U.S., it would have experienced at least 4 million deaths. Had the U.S. followed China's course, it would have had only 1,306 deaths in total," he said.