Tourists visit a historic district in Beijing on January 31, 2023.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

China has declared a “major and decisive victory” in its handling of the coronavirus outbreak that swept the country in recent months following an abrupt relaxation of its “zero-Covid” policy late last year.

The ruling Communist Party’s top decision-making body made the assessment during a closed-door meeting on Thursday presided over by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in the latest signal the country is seeking to minimize the political fallout from zero-Covid.

The years-long policy had generated widespread discontent – including rare nationwide protests – before it was scrapped in December amid rising economic costs, in a decision that caught the public off-guard.

The swift rollback of stringent disease controls sparked a surge in cases that saw hospitals overwhelmed and people scrambling for basic medicines. But the outbreak appears to have subsided in intensity in recent weeks, with official figures showing visits to fever clinics returning to levels below those of the period before restrictions were lifted after dropping from a peak in late December.

In its Thursday meeting, the Politburo Standing Committee said the highly populous nation had “created a miracle in human history” as it had “successfully pulled through a pandemic,” according to a summary published by state-run news agency Xinhua.

The summary also said the group claimed that China had kept the lowest Covid-19 fatality rate in the world – a metric that China’s top leadership touted throughout the pandemic, as its lockdowns, enforced quarantines and border restrictions kept case numbers – and fatalities – low compared with some other major economies.

But experts say the assessment – the first from China’s top leaders since the surge of cases has appeared to recede – merely serves to underscore the deep questions that remain about the impact of the outbreak on the country.

Unknown toll

Since ending zero-Covid, China has officially recorded more than 80,000 fatalities – a figure that counts people who were tested for Covid-19 and died in hospital but excludes deaths that went untested or those who died at home during the surge of the virus. Those excluded could be a sizable group, experts say, as testing stalled and many patients were likely to have avoided hospitals.

“There are still many questions about the death toll in China due to Covid – it might be useful if they could release more information, particularly about the all-cause deaths compared to the pre-Covid years,” said virologist Jin Dongyan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biomedical Sciences, pointing to one method for assessing a more complete picture of fatalities in the country.

China has also been criticized by the World Health Organization for its limited data transparency during the outbreak, including its earlier and more narrow definition of a Covid-19 death, which Chinese health officials updated in January.

It’s also not clear how many people were infected overall since China relaxed the zero-Covid policy – raising further questions about how authorities calculated the undisclosed Covid fatality rate, which experts say is typically measured by dividing the number of deaths over the total number of cases.

Chinese health authorities stopped releasing figures for so-called asymptomatic cases nationwide late last year, as they dismantled the countries’ extensive Covid-19 mass testing apparatus and allowed people to test and recover at home.

In late January, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) chief epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said on his personal social media account that around 80% of people in China had already been infected.

Reported death figures have also declined, with China reporting just 912 hospital deaths for the week of February 3-9, according to the latest CDC reporting, which also says fatalities peaked on January 4 with a total of 4,273 deaths that day.

Providing a more complete picture of the outbreak – and the death toll – may not suit the government’s interests of reassuring the public about their handling of the virus, according to Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Huang pointed to several international reports, based on modeling, which has placed the actual death toll at upwards of 1 million over the past two months. “You can’t expect the government to admit to this (scale),” he said, “because people are going to ask the question – how could we have paid so much economic and social cost (from zero-Covid) to essentially come up with an outcome that is equal if not worse to the (toll in the) US.”

Moving forward

Instead, Huang said, Chinese leaders were seizing the moment to take control of the narrative around the outbreak as the surge appears to have receded.

“People’s lives are returning to normal, and the viral wave comes to an end, so that kind of uncertainty (about the outbreak) is no longer there, and there is a need to reconcile the contradictory narrative, the credibility crisis that the abrupt policy U-turn created,” Huang said, referring to the shift in official tone as China swiftly adjusted from warning about the dangers of the virus and the need to contain it, to allowing it to spread.

“This is the perfect time to say that the outcome justified the decision,” Huang said.

But even as signs indicate that China’s population has widespread natural immunity, as in other countries, that does not mean the virus is gone or that China’s health care systems are prepared for potential future surges driven by potential new variants, experts say.

The Politburo Standing Committee referenced the need to continue to bolster health care in its meeting, according to the Xinhua summary, which said the body “urged all localities and departments to optimize related mechanisms and measures, strengthen the medical service system,” and called for planning for the next phase of vaccinations and enhancing medical supplies.

Jin at the University of Hong Kong agreed that China needed to continue to prepare, even as signs suggested the latest surge was largely over.

“Covid is still around and will be with us for much, much longer,” he said. “After this tsunami, still they have the new challenge of strengthening the health care system.”