About-turn in China’s Covid-19 messaging after moving to co-existence with virus

The phrase “dynamic zero-Covid”, often invoked up till two weeks back, has been quietly dropped from all official rhetoric.


December 16, 2022

BEIJING – As China moves to co-existing with Covid-19, official messaging has also taken a U-turn in recent weeks, with responsibility for the fight against the pandemic being notably shifted from the state to the individual.

After three years of demonising the virus, the propaganda machinery is cranking out assurances to citizens at full steam even as a wave of infections has seen pharmacy shelves emptied of supplies and hospitals overwhelmed.

The phrase “dynamic zero-Covid”, often invoked up till two weeks back, has been quietly dropped from all official rhetoric.

Instead, doctors now repeatedly appear on state media to remind people that the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is not as deadly as earlier variants, and that people can recover at home.

Popularly shared on social media are official lists of what to do when one tests positive for a Covid-19 infection, and an unofficial chart showing the 10-day cycle of a bout of infection, with details on what exactly to expect every day.

In rolling out a second booster shot for the population, China is now urging the elderly, vulnerable and those with chronic diseases to take the lead in getting jabbed – which it says is the final hurdle to fuller easing of pandemic measures. This is in contrast to its earlier approach, where the young and healthy were given priority, fearing adverse effects from the shots.

Up to mid-November, the Communist Party’s official newspaper People’s Daily had insisted that the country could achieve “dynamic zero-Covid”, which it called the most economical and suitable method for managing the pandemic in China.

But that term has not appeared since late November, when there were simultaneous protests in several cities pushing back against what many saw as excessive control policies.

In a nearly 12,000-character commentary on Thursday, the People’s Daily extolled the government’s efforts fighting the pandemic, filling up about a quarter of the front page and most of the second page.

“Everyone is the first person responsible for their own health,” said the piece, written under the pen name Ren Zhongping, which indicates an important piece that reflects the government’s thinking.

“We have the foundation, conditions, confidence and ability to win an all-round victory in the fight against the pandemic,” it said, before concluding that “victory will ultimately belong to the Chinese people”.

Last week, epidemiologist turned top health official Liang Wannian said the current mutation of the virus is less deadly than in the past – but members of the public have also chafed at his about-turn.

Many pointed to his insistence in April – when the Omicron variant was the dominant strain in China – that the Covid-19 death rate was seven to eight times higher than that of the flu. He had said that “as soon as we relax and not care about the virus, it will result in many serious illnesses and deaths”, and that many would suffer after-effects.

Previously, any suggestion that Covid-19 could eventually be treated like influenza was considered sacrilegious, and doctors such as former Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention head George Gao and Shanghai infectious diseases specialist Zhang Wenhong were criticised when making such suggestions.

“Regarding the issue of after-effects, Chinese experts have said many, many things, but they are far from the scientific facts,” Professor Jin Dongyan, a virologist from the University of Hong Kong, said in a podcast with New York Times columnist Yuan Li.

And on some social media platforms, censors are also getting to work in filtering information.

After numerous major cities have seen a run on medication and antigen rapid test kits, lifestyle-sharing platform Xiaohongshu has numerous guides teaching people how to buy cold and fever medicine from rural provinces.

One popular post, which directed people to buy medicine and antigen rapid test kits from Tibet, had over 20,000 likes before it was made unavailable to search.

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