Focus on zero-Covid leaves China vulnerable to flu epidemic

Focus on zero-Covid leaves China vulnerable to flu epidemic

Chinese health officials warn that the country’s focus on eradicating Covid-19 has left it unprepared for a possible flu epidemic that risks killing tens of thousands of citizens.

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, public health policy has prioritized the control of Covid over all other diseases, regardless of severity.

“China has invested so many health resources to tame Covid that the authority lacks the capacity to treat other infectious diseases,” said Yanzhong Huang, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Some health authorities are especially concerned about a flu outbreak in southern China. An official in Shantou, a city in the southern province of Guangdong where seasonal flu is spreading, told the Financial Times that the local government was still prioritizing covid prevention over flu shots, even though they had months have passed since there was a confirmed case of covid in the city.

“We have limited resources and we need to invest them in areas of greater importance,” said the official, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity surrounding public health issues.

When Xi chaired a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful body of the Chinese Communist Party, in May, he warned that “we must fight speech and acts that distort, question or reject anti-epidemic guidelines and policies.”

According to official data, the number of influenza vaccines in China reached a record 57.7 million people in 2020 before falling to just 2.1 million last year. By contrast, more than 1.1 billion people have received at least two Covid injections.

Speaking at a seminar on June 17, Wang Dayan, head of the influenza department at the China Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that the highly contagious influenza A virus risked putting the health system under “significant pressure” by the end of the year.

Health experts are also concerned that the frequent lockdowns used across the country have undermined people’s natural immunity against the flu and other infectious diseases.

Social isolation, which can last for months in extreme lockdowns like the one imposed in Shanghai this year, reduces people’s exposure to common illnesses, helping protect them from potentially dangerous flu strains.

“The upcoming flu season may be more severe than previous waves, as a lack of exposure to old viruses makes people’s immune systems less able to defend against new ones,” said Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong.

The Xi administration has shown no signs that it would ease its strict zero-Covid policy, even in the face of mounting evidence that the virus’s virulence was waning. On June 18, the Chinese CDC published a study of 33,000 people hospitalized after contracting the Omicron variant. Only 22 of the patients became seriously ill.

Several academic studies place influenza-related mortality in the country, led by the elderly, between 90,000 and 200,000 a year. That compares with just over 5,200 official Covid deaths from the pandemic that broke out more than two years ago.

Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Singapore

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