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'Did the Omicron mutate, or did the experts mutate?': China abandons 'clearing zero', confusion and disinformation spread

Residents walk past a security guard in protective gear as he browses his phone at the main entrance of a residential complex in Beijing, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2019.
Andy Wang
/
AP
Residents walk past a security guard in protective gear as he browses his phone at the main entrance of a residential complex in Beijing, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2019.

After nearly three years of strict COVID-19 "clearance" policies, Chinese officials recently rolled back most of them following rare nationwide protests. Large-scale nucleic acid testing and centralized isolation are now a thing of the past.

Equally striking as the policy shift is the shift in opinion among Chinese public health experts. Since the novel coronavirus was first detected in China in late 2019, the Chinese government has relied on experts to relay information, and now their credibility is at stake in the face of a potentially huge wave of infections.

Two months ago, Dr. Liang Wannian, the leader of the "zero" policy, said that China "cannot tolerate" a large-scale infection wave. And this month, he said , "the current virus is much milder."

If Liang Wannian is proposing a proper relaxation of the prevention and control system, then another well-known public health expert, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory scientist who rose to fame in the fight against the SARS epidemic, made completely misleading views about the virus. He went from advocating China's mass quarantine strategy in May to telling a state media outlet this month that he had yet to see any cases of significant long-term organ damage from COVID-19.

Many studies have shown that the new crown may lead to chronic health problems, including heart problems and brain damage .

Zhong Nanshan also said that 78% of patients infected with the Omicron variant will not be reinfected for a considerable period of time. Studies have shown that immune protection against reinfection declines dramatically over time, with most people getting reinfected every one to two years.

"Is the Omicron mutated, or is the Specialist mutated?"

The shift has drawn attention on the Chinese internet. Posts juxtposing televised speeches by several experts, including Liang Wannian and Zhong Nanshan, before and after the state policy change , garnered more than 100,000 views.

"Is the Omicron mutated, or is the Specialist mutated?" one poster asked.

Not all public health and medical experts have changed their views. Weeks before Shanghai was shut down due to the outbreak, Zhang Wenhong, director of the infection department at Huashan Hospital affiliated to Fudan University, said that the "clearing" policy should be relaxed. That view initially drew some flak online, though people are now praising him for his outspokenness in the face of power.

Wu Fan, a member of the expert group of the Shanghai Epidemic Prevention and Control Leading Group, was once famous for insisting that Shanghai cannot be closed. Now people express their apologies to him on the Internet.

Aside from the policy shift, much of the discussion online has shifted to how to deal with the consequences of the policy change, including what preventive measures and treatments are available.

"It's kind of like flying in the dark"

In recent days, untested anti-coronavirus treatments have become popular again. A TCM physician, a member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering, recommended the unproven method of gargling with ice-cold salt water daily. This confused commenters online. "Wasn' t salt water gargling a myth debunked two years ago? Does iced salt water have a different effect?" reads a blog post .

A local government in southwestern China recommends making tea with orange peel and monk fruit -- both common ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine -- to prevent infection. Dr. Zhong Nanshan said a few weeks ago that he has not found any drug that can effectively prevent new crown infection.

For Chen Wenhong, an associate professor of media studies and sociology at the University of Texas, the current chaos and uncertainty reminded her of the atmosphere in early 2020 when the new crown epidemic first spread. "It's a bit like flying in the dark."

People wait in line for medical staff at a makeshift fever clinic set up by a hospital in Beijing, December 18, 2022. The outpatient clinic was converted from a sports center and was designed to treat potential new crown patients. Since the government lifted the "zero-out" policy, the number of new crown infections has surged.
Kevin Frayer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
People wait in line for medical staff at a makeshift fever clinic set up by a hospital in Beijing, December 18, 2022. The outpatient clinic was converted from a sports center and was designed to treat potential new crown patients. Since the government lifted the "zero-out" policy, the number of new crown infections has surged.

information gap

According to surveys conducted in 2020 , state media and health experts are the most trusted sources of information on COVID-19 for most Chinese. Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that since most people do not have access to the global internet, they have no choice but the official media and its matrix of social media accounts.

He said market-oriented media has the potential to provide better information, although its influence cannot match that of state-run media.

In addition, unofficial media outlets are vulnerable to government repression. "Lilac Garden" is a well-known health science online media, dedicated to dispelling myths about health. It has criticized the government's promotion of traditional Chinese medicine and its "zero-out" policy. But in August this year, his account was banned on mainstream social media. Its account on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media site, has not been updated yet.

Another challenge is that Chinese news outlets often translate and share COVID-19 misinformation from English sources with readers. "It doesn't matter whether [the source] is credible or not," Huang said. "They find any information that might be useful to them, they start translating it into Chinese, and they start distributing it, and then the information becomes widespread."

A recent example is how the party newspaper Global Times cited a misleading report in the British tabloid Daily Mail . The report suggested, without evidence, that vaccine maker Moderna created the new coronavirus. The report was widely cited by the Global Times, using it to attack other unproven theories about the origin of the virus, including one suggesting it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Other smaller social media accounts made videos based on the report, putting "British media" in the headlines.

Overseas information comes not only from newspapers, but also from millions of Chinese living overseas.

"The Chinese diaspora play an important role here, sharing their personal COVID-19 experiences with their compatriots back home," Chen Wenhong said. "They know that in most cases it won't be that serious."

She noted that while researchers and journalists often focus on representations on social media, many rural residents, often older, rely primarily on television and family members living in big cities to stay informed. Many are less resilient to disease, live in places where medical resources are scarce, and are not good at finding information on social media.

With the rapid spread of COVID-19 infections from big cities to towns and villages, the Chinese government needs to act quickly to disseminate medically sound public health messages to the most vulnerable, Chen said.

However, both Chen Wenhong and Huang Yanzhong said it is too early to assess the impact of the change in health information.

Implications for the next pandemic

The sudden shift in public health information is not a new challenge, nor is it unique to China. At different stages of the pandemic, many countries have changed the caliber of health information. Early on, there was much debate, including in the United States, about whether masks and face coverings would reduce the spread of the virus.

As NPR has previously reported , the messages public health authorities communicate to the public are not based entirely on science — many are also based on cultural and pragmatic considerations.

Chen Wenhong said that scientists will need to do some self-reflection in the next few years. "How do we act if we know that politics will have an impact on public health and science? What is our professional ethics?"

"What kind of information will be best when the next pandemic hits?"

Michaeleen Doucleff and John Ruwitch contributed reporting; translation by Aowen Cao.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Huo Jingnan
Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team.