Opinion | It’s as if Nothing Ever Happened Here in China

Earlier, I had purchased bottled oxygen and other supplies for Grandma. But what I really wanted was Paxlovid, an antiviral drug used to treat Covid. China approved imports early last year, but supplies had been gobbled up, with packs of single, five-day courses selling for well over $7,000 on the black market at one point, around 20 times the standard price. Many people bought generic versions illegally imported from India.

After two weeks of searching, I finally placed an order online. But the drug must be taken within five days from the onset of symptoms, and by the time it arrived, Grandma was past that. Doctors prescribed antibiotics, and I cooked and cared for her, barely sleeping myself. Thankfully, she slowly improved by mid-January.

Countless others were less fortunate: Images of overwhelmed hospitals and crematories, along with obituaries, flooded Chinese social media for weeks. My neighbor in Beijing lost her father, grandmother and uncle in the current outbreak. The crush of patients and long waits for ambulances or care at chaotic hospitals all hampered their treatment.

“I trusted the government too much,” she told me. “They lied to us.”

The Chinese just finished celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday, which in China is called the Spring Festival. It’s normally the most joyous time of year, with hundreds of millions of people drawn back to their hometowns for family reunions, feasts, toasts of fiery grain alcohol and the exchange of red envelopes filled with gifts of cash. But for my neighbor, the holiday will always be an annual reminder of loss and pain. I would often see her outside feeding stray cats and followed her chirpy posts about her life on social media. Now she does neither and is considering leaving the country.

More than 84,000 people have died in China from the pandemic, according to official figures, the vast majority of them since the government lifted “zero Covid” in December. But those numbers are widely thought to conceal the true scale. A top government scientist said about 80 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people have been infected by the current wave. This would have been unimaginable to us just two months before.

Two weeks ago, I traveled the seven hours by train from Beijing back to my hometown once again to spend the holiday with Grandma and other relatives. As we do every year, my entire family sat down to watch the annual gala televised by China’s state broadcaster, several hours of cheerful entertainment meant to ring in the Year of the Rabbit. The slick, feel-good production made no reference to the struggles endured by millions during the outbreak. State-controlled news media rarely mention them either.

It’s as if nothing ever happened.

China now says the wave has peaked, and that may be true. Pharmacy shelves are no longer bare. Even Paxlovid has become more available, and I don’t hear about overwhelmed hospitals anymore. Friends and relatives expressed optimism as they returned last weekend to the cities where they work. There is hope that, with the pandemic restrictions gone, the economy and job market will improve. The Chinese have a remarkable ability to endure and stoically move forward. But the scars from the past few weeks remain.