Covid-19: how China went from “zero Covid” to “full Covid”

A Covid patient is taken to hospital in Beijing on Monday, December 19.

AP - Andy Wong

Text by: Stéphane Lagarde Follow

6 mins

Two weeks ago, China's national health commission announced the relaxation of epidemic prevention and control measures.

A way, without saying it officially, to put an end to the so-called “zero Covid” strategy which had blocked the slightest outbreak of infection for three years.

In two weeks, the country went from being terrorized by the virus to living with Omicron.     


Read more

The wave arrived without warning.

A veritable tsunami of infections that the inhabitants of Beijing and its region have received in the face.

Measures taken a few days earlier, such as the end of the obligation to present a 

negative Covid test of less than 48 hours

 at the entrance to transport, already gave a glimpse of the revolution in progress.

But few Beijingers expected the upheaval of Wednesday, December 7.

Avalanche of sheep on the networks 

Among the

ten instructions issued

on December 7 by the National Health Commission, the end of confinement in a collective quarantine center was a real relief for families.  

Before people would have been scared, today I was simply advised to drink plenty of water, take vitamins and sleep well.

Testimonials after the relaxation of health rules in China

Stephane Lagarde

It also triggered an avalanche of questions about WeChat groups.

After years of absolute control by local committees for the prevention and control of the epidemic (CDC), everyone finds themselves in 24 hours " 

responsible for their health 

", as the new official slogan puts it bluntly.

The impression of a first parachute jump for many Internet users: “ 

What to do, when our residence committee tells us to fend for ourselves?


Looks like the white guards have disappeared, what to do?

 or “

I did a PCR test at a street screening station and my result didn't come back


“With too many positive returns in the test tubes of the collective tests within the PCR stations outside, the laboratories are overwhelmed.

The "sheep" emojis then invaded social networks.

The poor beast didn't do anything, but in Mandarin, the "positive" character sounds like that of the animal.

The Chinese capital was until now

a health bubble

in the health bubble but in a few days, relatives, family, work colleagues posted a sheep under their profile.

This also had the effect of giving Beijing an air of spring 2020. 

The streets emptied.

The cartonniers and the roadmenders around the residences, in contact with the waste from the residential towers, fell ill among the first.


the deliverers

and finally all the businesses, the institutions which had to temporarily stop their activities until they were back on their feet. 

► To read also: Covid-19 in China: back to work, employees torn between relief and concern

Rapid lifting of “zero Covid”   

Why did China extend its “zero Covid” policy for a year longer than countries that were also following this virus blocking strategy such as South Korea or Taiwan?

First, a political reason: the Chinese power needed stability until

the re-election of the head of state, Xi Jinping

, and did not want to take the risk of opening the Covid floodgates before the 20th Party Congress. Chinese communist in October 2022. Until this great five-yearly mass of Chinese politics, we could witness a parade of officials promising that China would never “ 

lie down 

” in the face of the epidemic, in other words refused to “

 living with the virus

 " as abroad.

After the Congress,


suggested a relaxation of the measures.

Another reason for this extension of “zero Covid”, the delay in vaccines.

Currently, a Chinese mRNA vaccine is being tested, but labs

still have nothing to distribute


However, China did not want to authorize foreign vaccines.

In the reasons which accelerated the movement, on the contrary, we count this fatigue of the population in front of the constraints linked to the health pass on smartphones and to the PCR tests to be done every two or three days since last May.

Anger over repeated lockdowns and metal palisades or fences surrounding communities sparked simultaneous protests in several cities across China in late November.

That hadn't happened in over thirty years.

Social discontent and the economic imperative - Chinese growth should reach 3% against the 5.5% announced this year - have also pushed for this hasty end to zero Covid.

Also, necessity is law.

As the WHO has hinted, it may already have been too late.

It was no longer possible to stop Omicron, except by putting Beijing under glass, as Shanghai was in the spring of 2022. 

Moreover, the central power had made no secret of wanting to change course, but many expected a change of strategy in stages, next spring, and after having completed the vaccination campaign for the elderly.

In the end, the change was radical, and took place overnight.

Herd immunity 

In all countries, Covid statistics are questionable.

But it is even more true in China, with the firewall of censorship and propaganda rewriting the history of the epidemic.

The terms “zero Covid” have thus almost disappeared from Chinese newspapers.

State media have been instructed not to use them anymore.

After three years of terror where the virus

was fought

on every street corner by an army of health workers in white protective suits, viral pneumonia was renamed “ 

infectious virus

 ” so as not to frighten the population.

Asymptomatic people 

are no longer taken into account

in the assessments and the criteria for qualifying Covid deaths have been reduced.

We therefore obtain this improbable count – 7 deaths throughout the territory since the relaxation of health restrictions since the beginning of December – while funeral homes are running at full speed in Beijing.

► To read also: China: crematoria overwhelmed in Beijing due to the Covid tsunami

China therefore went overnight from zero Covid to “

 herd immunity 

”, what is called in Chinese “快速达峰”, the race to “ 

reach the peak (of contaminations) as soon as 

possible ”.

And according to one of the great figures in the fight against the epidemic in China, to lead to a return to " 

normal life 

" by March 2023.

This target of 80% of the population immunized " 


" by infection, or via vaccines, could come at the time of the meeting of the Chinese Parliament, which must validate the entry into office of the leaders elected during the 20th Congress of the CPC. in the fall of 2022. 

From now on, the concern is felt especially for the

countryside and the medium-sized cities

, which should be won by this first wave of Covid at the time of the Lunar New Year holidays, at the end of January.

The models are always complicated in terms of epidemics, but some experts announce between 300,000 and 1.5 million deaths.

With this question: could these deaths have been avoided with a less abrupt exit from zero Covid?


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  • China

  • Health and medicine

  • Coronavirus