China’s end of ‘zero-COVID’ has sparked a spate of misinformation : NPR


Residents walk past a security guard in hazmat suits who searches his phone at a main entrance gate to a neighborhood in Beijing on Thursday, December 1, 2022.

Andy Wong/AP


Hide caption

toggle caption

Andy Wong/AP


Residents walk past a security guard in hazmat suits who searches his phone at a main entrance gate to a neighborhood in Beijing on Thursday, December 1, 2022.

Andy Wong/AP

After nearly three years of strict “zero-COVID” policies, Chinese officials have rolled back most of them in recent days after rare protests across the country. Mass testing and mass quarantine are now a thing of the past.

Just as dramatic as the policy changes is the shift in messages from the public health experts the Chinese government has relied on since the virus was first identified in China in late 2019, jeopardizing their credibility in the run-up to what is likely to be a huge wave of infections .

Two months ago, Dr. Liang Wannian, the architect of the zero-COVID policy, that China “cannot tolerate” a wave of mass infections. This month he said: “The virus is much milder now.”

As Liang shifted the focus to less stringent protocols, another prominent public health expert, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a pulmonologist who made a name for himself fighting the SARS outbreak, made completely misleading claims about the virus. He went from announcing China’s mass quarantine strategy in May to telling a state media outlet that he had seen no cases of COVID-19, which had caused apparent long-term organ damage.

Many studies have shown that COVID can cause chronic health problems, including heart problems and brain damage.

Zhong also said that 78% of patients infected with the Omnicron variant do not become reinfected for quite a long time. Studies suggest that protection from reinfection decreases dramatically over time, and most people become reinfected every one to two years.

“Did Omicron mutate, or did the experts?”

The turnaround did not go unnoticed on the Chinese internet. Posts juxtaposing the TV appearances of several experts before and after the state policy change – including Zhong and Liang – have been viewed more than 100,000 times.

“Did Omicron mutate or did the experts?” wrote one poster.

Not all public health and medicine experts have changed their minds. Zhang Wenhong, the director of a hospital affiliated with Fudan University in Shanghai, said the zero-COVID policy should be relaxed even before an outbreak in Shanghai shuts down the city for weeks. This position initially drew some online attacks, although he is now being lauded for telling the truth to those in power.

Wu Fan, a member of the Shanghai Disease Outbreak Control Commission known for failing to shut down Shanghai, is now receiving apologies online.

Aside from whiplash, much of the online discussion has focused on how to deal with the consequences of the policy change, including the preventive measures and treatments available.

Untested remedies were used

Untested means of combating COVID have blossomed again in recent days. An internal medicine doctor who is a member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering recommended the unproven method of rinsing your mouth out with ice-cold salt water every day. Internet commentators were stunned. “Wasn’t the salt water flush debunked two years ago? Does an ice version make a difference?” wrote one in a blog post.

A local government in southwest China suggested making tea from orange peel and monk fruit — both common ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine — to help prevent infection. dr Zhong said weeks ago that he had not found a drug that could effectively prevent COVID infection.

The chaos and uncertainty right now reminds Chen Wenhong, associate professor of media studies and sociology at the University of Texas, of the atmosphere in early 2020 when COVID first spread. “It’s kind of like flying in the dark.”


People wait in line to see health workers at a makeshift fever clinic set up by a hospital to treat potential COVID-19 patients at a sports center in Beijing, China, December 18, 2022. COVID cases have increased since the government scaled back its “zero-COVID” policy.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


Hide caption

toggle caption

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


People wait in line to see health workers at a makeshift fever clinic set up by a hospital to treat potential COVID-19 patients at a sports center in Beijing, China, December 18, 2022. COVID cases have increased since the government scaled back its “zero-COVID” policy.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

information gap

According to 2020 surveys, state media and health professionals are the most trusted sources of information about COVID-19 for most people in China. And with access to the global internet closed to most people, there are few alternatives to state media and its constellation of coordinated social media accounts, says Huang Yanzhong, senior fellow in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York .

Private agencies could provide better information, although they don’t have the same reach, he says.

In addition, non-state media are vulnerable to government crackdowns. Ding Xiangyuan was a well-read online health information portal that debunked health myths and criticized the government’s promotion of traditional Chinese medicine and zero-COVID policies before being banned from popular social media platforms in August. His accounts on popular Chinese social media site Weibo remain silent today.

Another challenge is that Chinese news outlets often translate and share COVID misinformation from English-language sources with their audiences. “Regardless of whether [the sources] serious or not,” says Huang. “They find anything they thought would be useful to them, they start translating it into Chinese and circulating it, and it goes viral.”

A recent example was how the Communist Party-controlled newspaper The Global Times cited a misleading report in the British tabloid Daily Mail that suggested without evidence that vaccine maker Moderna manufactured the virus. The Global Times extensively cited the coverage and used it to attack other unsupported theories about the origin of the virus, including those that suggested it was leaked from a government research lab in Wuhan. Other smaller social media accounts made videos of the report, grabbing British Media headlines.

Information from abroad comes not only from newspapers, but also from the millions of Chinese living abroad.

“The Chinese diaspora has played a very useful role here, speaking to people in China about their personal COVID experiences,” says Chen, “knowing that in most cases it won’t be that serious.”

She points out that while researchers and journalists often pay attention to social media discourse, many rural, often elderly, residents rely on television and family members in larger cities to keep up to date. Many are vulnerable to the disease, live in places where health care resources are scarce and unable to find information on social media.

With the disease spreading rapidly from major cities to towns and villages, the Chinese government must act quickly to bring medically sound public health messages to the most vulnerable, Chen says.

So far, both Chen and Huang say it’s too early to tell what impact whiplash will have on health news.

Implications for the next pandemic

Abrupt changes in health communication are not a new or uniquely Chinese challenge. At various stages of the pandemic, many countries have changed course on which healthcare messages to send. Early on, there was a lot of back-and-forth about whether masks and face coverings would stem the spread of the virus in the United States as well.

As NPR reported, health officials don’t base their messages to the public solely on scientific evidence—many considerations are also pragmatic and cultural.

Chen says scientists have quite a bit of soul-searching to do in the next few years. “If we know that politics will play a role in public health and also in science, how do we behave? What [are] our ethics?”

“If the next pandemic comes, what would be the best message?”

Michaeleen Doucleff and John Ruwitch contributed reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *