Within the next month, China’s medical institutions will face their “darkest hour”. This warning by prominent doctor Zhang Wenhong has been circulated by state media. It reflects a view that not long ago would have been treated as heresy in “zero-Covid” China. But with the virus now sweeping the country, including its hospitals, talk of crushing it has ceased. People are queueing for hours at fever clinics. Medical staff are falling sick in droves. In the coming weeks, deaths will rise rapidly as the disease takes its toll on an undervaccinated population.
For much of the past three years, since cases of Covid-19 were first detected in the central city of Wuhan, the government has viewed its handling of the pandemic with pride. It had succeeded in keeping Covid-19 at bay and deaths to an astonishingly small number compared with many other countries. It had also managed to turn this to great propaganda advantage. At least until late 2022, when the virus began to run loose and protests erupted over lockdowns that were often brutally enforced, many people appeared to buy the official line that China’s accomplishments were the product of a superior political system: one said to be uniquely capable of mobilising people and resources on a scale needed to prevent the virus from spreading.