For the past three years, China’s President, Xi Jinping, has staked his reputation on “zero COVID.” Early on, he declared a “people’s war” against COVID-19, using lockdowns and quarantines to eliminate infections entirely. But in early January, President Xi announced an unexpected pivot—China would open its borders on January 8, following a series of mass protests in late November that marked one of the most public widespread oppositions to the Chinese Communist Party since Tiananmen Square. 

Prior to this month, China recorded just over 5,000 COVID-19 related deaths in a population of 1.4 billion since the first reported case in late 2019. Now though, the abrupt U-turn in dropping nearly all COVID-19 restrictions has left hospitals scrambling to cope with a wave of infections, pharmacy shelves short on critical drugs, and funeral homes overcrowded and fully-booked. The number of cases has skyrocketed so quickly that China does not even count asymptomatic infections anymore, nor does it tally an official death toll. One report estimates 60,000 people have died from COVID-19 since early December, and another model predicts that the surge will peak after the Lunar New Year, leaving over two million dead in its wake. Epidemiologists are concerned that an outbreak of this scale in a population with such low immunity will create countless opportunities for the virus to mutate, driving surges and new variants of concern around the world.  

This ongoing crisis asks the question about why China persisted with “zero COVID” for so long, and why it chose to reverse the policy now. Last year, the Omicron variant forced other countries to recognize that purging COVID-19 altogether was unsustainable, but still, China held on. The policy’s critics have questioned why China failed to prepare for this inevitable surge. The success of “zero COVID,” which limited the transmission of the coronavirus, had rendered the population almost wholly unarmed against the virus. And the (small) vaccinated population have all received Chinese-developed vaccines. As these vaccines use whole inactivated viruses rather than mRNA technology, they have not been updated to target Omicron sub-variants. China’s already-strained healthcare system has been further weakened by healthcare workers succumbing to illness and burnout, and the demand for ICU beds has exceeded the capacity. 

Despite the overwhelmingly bleak nature of this new situation, a few upsides have emerged with this new policy. “On the bright side, China reopening the borders means that I can travel back and forth more normally now,” said Smile Jiang ’24, with an emphasis on the word “more.” Unlike many Chinese students at Concord Academy, Smile returned to her home in Shenzhen over the summer, but spent 21 days in a strict hotel quarantine. For others, though, this may be the first time they have returned home in three years. 

What China has learned is that isolation can buy time, but it cannot eliminate a virus’ threat as a whole. Hiding from the challenge left the country ill-prepared to deal with the inevitable, and now, COVID-19 threatens the well-being of over a billion people not afforded the protections that we, in the US, take for granted.