China is battling a massive wave of infections after scrapping three years of zero-Covid curbs.
Scenes of overwhelmed hospitals, people on intravenous drips by the roadside and lines of hearses outside crematoria have fuelled public concern.
An extraordinarily small number of reported fatalities – 10 deaths since the old policy regime was overturned on December 7 – and a decision by authorities to stop publishing data on cases have also stoked distrust.
With estimates of millions of daily cases and at least one million Covid deaths next year, global experts say the world’s most populous nation needs to bolster its medical infrastructure quickly.
Chinese officials have vowed to step up protection for key demographic groups – including millions of elderly people – boost vaccination rates and expand healthcare resources.
Experts say China has been caught ill-prepared by the abrupt U-turn in policies long championed by President Xi Jinping and implemented by trusted ally vice-premier Sun Chunlan.
This month, tenders put out by hospitals for key medical equipment such as ventilators and patient monitors were two to three times higher than in previous months, according to a Reuters review, suggesting hospitals across the country were scrambling to plug shortages.
China’s Covid policy is in chaos due to crunches in medical supplies and the sheer number of sick elderly people, said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “This is very much an unprecedented emergency now, because of the healthcare crunch that has happened everywhere, at different levels, even in Beijing,” Mr Wu said.
“More fundamental, and more subtle and more important is the social contract and social trust in China. It is supposed to be very high and supposed to help the government deal with many challenges but now the issue is we don’t know how much faith people have in the government.”
China’s State Council Information Office did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
Over the past three years, Vice-Premier Sun (72) has been the face of China’s Covid fight, a mother-like figure who has executed Mr Xi’s zero-Covid policy with a firm hand.
On January 22, 2020, while visiting the central city of Wuhan where the new coronavirus was first found, Ms Sun told local cadres to implement the “strictest” counter-epidemic measures. A day later, the city of over 13 million was thrown into a lockdown – the first of many across China that sparked anger and protests.
In April this year, Ms Sun rushed to Shanghai as the city went under lockdown, according to state media reports.
At the end of a one-month stay, she said it was not the time for the city of 25 million to relax. The lockdown continued for another month.
Trusted by Mr Xi, the former factory worker has taken blows for his Covid policies.
In 2020, while inspecting a high-rise condominium in Wuhan, her group was heckled by residents under lockdown.
“It’s fake! It’s fake!” they yelled from their windows, accusing officials of staging grocery deliveries to coincide with her visit.
Ms Sun is to step down in March.
According to minutes of a Covid teleconference meeting on December 25, Li Qiang, the former Communist Party chief of Shanghai who oversaw the city’s two-month lockdown, spoke as the new head of a small but powerful policy-deciding group on Covid.