Mutation.

How does a Chinese national say “President Xi was completely wrong” without finding himself or herself on the midnight express to re-education camp?

Delicately” is the answer.

Zhong Nanshan appears to have thread the needle. The South China Morning Post reports:

China’s response to Covid-19 should now focus on preventing serious cases — rather than infection — by expanding vaccination, top infectious disease expert Zhong Nanshan said on Friday.

We cannot adopt the same strategy as two years ago,” said Zhong, a Guangzhou specialist famed for leading the battle against the Sars outbreak in 2003.

Being infected with Omicron is not scary, as there is a 99 per cent chance to recover in seven to 10 days. We should put our focus on severe case prevention,” he told a medical conference via video link.

“Self-protection, designated hospitals and protection of healthcare workers is particularly important.”

Zhong’s remarks come two days after Beijing announced a major policy shift away from its tough zero-Covid approach. Now, people who test positive but have mild or no symptoms can isolate at home instead of being sent to a quarantine facility, while compulsory mass testing and lockdowns have been abandoned. (Italics mine)

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Dr. Zhong is an immense figure in medical science in China (and around the world). This from his biographical sketch at the Journal of Thoracic Disease, where he serves as Editor in Chief:

He was the first person describing SARS coronovirus as the main pathogen in 2003 SARS pandemic in Guangdong. As a leader in the management of 2002/2003 SARS outbreak in China, he successfully led his team in rescue, achieving lowest mortality of SARS infection (3.8% in Guangdong) among the world by rationale use of corticosteroid and non-invasive ventilation. He successfully developed a new vaccine using small molecule interference RNA technique in the prevention and treatment of SARS in Rhesus macaque. He led in writing a handbook which was later used by the WHO as a blueprint in developing a global response to this disease.

Professor Zhong is also a leader and principal investigator to more than 10 major scientific projects, including the State-973, State-863, Tenth State Five-year Plan, National Nature Science Grants, and WHO/GOLD global network. He has published a great number of papers in worldwide reputed SCI journals, including those in Nature Medicine, Lancet, BMJ, Am J Respir Crit Care Med, and more than 200 papers in State-level journals. His publications have received 438 citations. In 2008, one of his papers published in the Lancet was elected as “paper of the year”. Besides, he has published 16 books including Respiratory Medicine (National College Textbooks for Medical Postgraduates), Internal Medicine (National textbooks), Asthma: from Basic to Clinical, and has gained 9 technical patents.

Due to his great achievements in medical practices and scientific education, Prof Zhong was also a recipient to Second and Third Prizes for National Natural Sciences, Outstanding Contribution Award, First Prize of Guangdong Science and Technology Awards, and Bethune Medal (2004). He became National May Day Labor Medalist (2003), National Moral Models (2007), European Respiratory Society Lifetime Honorary Fellow (2008), People Who Moved China 2009, Advanced Individual of National Medical Health Care System (2009),Fifth Higher School Teaching Masters Award (2009) and National Award for Achievements in Teaching (2009).

Zhong was also awarded the Medal of the Republic, the highest honor of China, in September of 2020. So he has standing to say….difficult things.

That said, President Xi is not known for tolerating criticism of any kind, explicit or implicit. So Zhong’s remarks were and are remarkable.

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Zhong’s views on the consequences of reversing Zero Covid (and what to do about it) are as close as one can get to “exactly right.” And should the Chinese government and the Chinese people follow his advice, the worst might be over by summer. A million or a few million people (mostly old people and those living in rural areas) will be dead, but “herd immunity,” or something close to it, will have been “achieved.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Xi, there is no getting around the failure of his Zero Covid policy. By declining the offer of Western vaccines, he forfeited the most potent available weapon to combat the virus. By locking down city after city after city, he depressed economic activity. And by reversing himself on how to deal with the most recent outbreak — call it the “let it rip” strategy — he has set in motion a health care system crisis that the Chinese people will long remember. No beds, no meds and no one there to help is tough medicine. Failure on that scale does not beget forgiveness soon.

The larger problem, for the Chinese people and people around the world, is the likelihood that Covid spreading like wildfire through an ethnically diverse country will give birth to new mutations, which in turn could (would?) spread like wildfire. Given the easing of travel restrictions, a new, more infectious mutation would jump borders immediately. This from a Bloomberg report earlier this week:

The US is concerned China’s runaway Covid-19 outbreak might spawn new mutations of the virus, as the world’s most populous country continues to grapple with the impact of loosening “Covid Zero” protocols that had kept the pandemic at bay. “When it comes to the current outbreak in China, we want to see this addressed,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a briefing on Monday. “We know that anytime the virus is spreading in the wild that it has the potential to mutate and to pose a threat to people everywhere.” Chinese cities are witnessing a wave of Covid-19 cases, with concerns growing that the government may be hiding the true toll of the virus after years of insisting that the Communist Party had handled the virus more skillfully than the West. On Monday, police and security guards pushed journalists back from a Beijing crematorium.

So we wait, nervously, as does Xi. The Zero Covid policy was reversed by the people of China. Enough was enough. They couldn’t take it anymore. Xi obeyed. The new policy, should it go terribly wrong, cannot be reversed. It can only be endured.

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In an ideal world, the Chinese government would work cooperatively with the world’s leading scientists and virologists to monitor the spread of Covid in China and (hopefully) “catch” what mutations “arise.” The chances of a cooperative effort for this purpose are zero. As noted above: “On Monday, police and security guards pushed journalists back from a Beijing crematorium.” It’s probably safe to say that sharing data from Chinese labs falls into the category of “how does never work for you?”

What can be reversed is acceptance of Xi’s political leadership. There are powerful factions in China’s political “arena” who would be more than willing to abet that reversal. If public opinion comes to support “political reversal,” emphatically, a crisis of the regime will ensue.

For now, the coverage of the “let it rip” reversal seems (to me at least) surprisingly un-alarmed. This is partially because China has shut down any official source of reliable data. Western and Asian journalists gather what information they can from social media, anecdotal evidence, sources who are willing to talk (mostly off the record or on background) and personal observation. Given the absence of data (of any kind), the bigger picture of what’s happening is probably impossible to determine and/or report.

President Xi. (Photo via asiatimes.com)

There are plenty of reasons to be alarmed. The possibility of a catastrophic mutation, one that infects hundreds of millions of people around the world is not far-fetched. The consequences of an “event” of that kind would destabilize geopolitics, dramatically, and in ways we probably can’t imagine.

Governments would certainly fall. Borders would close. Economic activity would come to a standstill, at least for a while. The global financial system would come under extraordinary stress. The world wouldn’t be in disarray. It would, for some period of time, be off the rails.

There’s a chance (a very small one, we hope) that the 2023 version of the pandemic will make the 2020 version look benign. God help us if that chance becomes a fact.

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Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.

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John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.