A health worker takes a swab sample from a resident to be tested for Covid-19 coronavirus in China this week
China has just recorded its highest number of daily infections since the pandemic first began.
Case numbers reached 31,527 on Wednesday, even though Covid restrictions are still so strict, and a fifth of the country’s economy remains limited.
As Covid originated in the Chinese district of Wuhan, rising numbers have triggered some concern.
So why might cases be rising, and what does this mean for the rest of the world? Here’s what we know so far.
What’s happening with China’s Covid cases?
Cities across China have seen an uptick in case numbers, including the capital Beijing.
Infections have reached a record high, beating the last peak of 28,000 from April.
However, it’s important to put this into context – China has a population of 1.4 billion.
And, it’s clear many of those infected in the country throughout the course of the pandemic have managed to recover. Around 5,200 people have died due to Covid since the outbreak began – meaning there’s been around three deaths in every million people in the country.
There’s been approximately 2,400 deaths per million in the UK, although there are of course several factors that need to be considered when comparing countries.
Still, it’s clear that its strict approach has prevented many deaths across China so far.
Peope queue for swab testing for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a collection site in Beijing on November 23, 2022 during a lockdown
What has been China’s approach to Covid?
The country has a severe zero-Covid policy, which means it has tried to eliminate the virus altogether.
It is the only major economy in the world still attempting to do this, but Covid is still being detected in all 31 provinces.
Nevertheless, the government is refusing to give up.
Only earlier this year there were blanket lockdowns in the country’s largest city Shanghai, and localised lockdowns continue to be a common occurrence.
China did recently ease up on some restrictions though.
Mandatory seven-day quarantines for close contacts of Covid cases (inside a state facility) were still in place until just a few weeks ago, when it was reduced to five days and three days at home. Secondary contacts have only just stopped being recorded in the country too.
But the most recent increase means some cities are shutting down again. For instance, the city Zhengzhou is going into an unofficial lockdown from Friday.
Why is China struggling?
Vaccination uptake remains low, particularly among the vulnerable. Only half of those aged over 80 have their primary vaccinations, according to the BBC.
China is still refusing to import vaccines too, although the Chinese-made vaccine is not as effective as those used elsewhere around the world.
Dr Julian Tang, a clinical virologist and honorary associate professor at the University of Leicester, told HuffPost UK: “Viruses spread where this is a lack of immunity – either through lack of natural infection or vaccination, including where vaccines are not very effective.
“In addition, if the virus mutates quite quickly – as Covid does – this natural or vaccine immunity-induced protection will gradually fade over time – as we have seen with Omicron.
“Finally where the virus mutates to a [quite] transmissible but less severe (even more asymptomatic) form, this allows those infected to still mingle in society, spreading the virus further – as we’ve seen with Omicron.”
This suggests that even the slight easing of restrictions within China over the last few weeks could have exacerbated infections.
Does China need to drop its zero-Covid policy?
President Xi Jinping has insisted that strict curbs are still needed to eradicate Covid completely – and as China is under authoritarian rule, his word goes.
The National Health Commission spokesman recently “warned against any slacking in epidemic prevention and control” and called for “more resolute and decision measures” to bring cases back under control.
But, it is the only developed economy still pursuing this goal. Other countries, such as New Zealand, dropped this strategy last year when it became impossible to impose severe restrictions when any infections arose.
And, as professor of medicine Paul Hunter from the University of East Anglia told HuffPost UK, Covid is here to stay.
“Opening up society will always lead to a surge of infections,” he explained.
He suggested that only by opening up soon after vaccination, there will be “relatively few deaths”.
He added: “New Zealand got it right and China has got it wrong.”
So, despite growing fatigue within the population – especially as the Qatar World Cup proves that elsewhere, Covid measures have been almost completely dropped – mass testing and travel restrictions are ongoing, and the economy continues to struggle.
There have also been reports of crucial medical attention being delayed, and emergency services such as earthquake rescue workers being unable to attend to those who needed it without taking a Covid test first.
Could this have international consequences?
An increase in Covid cases is always a possibility, especially when parts of the global population are not fully vaccinated.
As Dr Tang pointed out: “The virus does not care about borders, politics – just finding [or] reaching susceptible new hosts – wherever they may be.”
The World Health Organisation still calls Covid an “acute global emergency”.
The UK is also about to see in its first winter without restrictions since 2019.
Yet it is worth pointing out that the most vulnerable in the UK are mostly vaccinated. Nearly 94% of over-80s in England have had at least three doses.
And, the director of public health programmes at UKHSA, Dr Mary Ramsay, said this week: “The continued decline in Covid cases across the country is reassuring.
“Declining hospitalisations in over 50s is also a result of so many people having come forward for their booster.
“We urge those who have not had their booster this autumn to do so as soon as possible. Vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself, your family and the NHS, particularly as we head into the winter.”
— UK Health Security Agency (@UKHSA) November 24, 2022