Even before the lifting of China’s long-standing “zero-COVID” policy in early December of last year, there were signs of a surge in Omicron cases nationwide. Since then, China has experienced a tsunami of infections—first in larger cities, and then in the countryside—amid concerns about shortages of needed medications, the increasing risk of medical debt, and unreliable official data on the numbers of infections and deaths.
Despite the recent Lunar New Year celebration in which hundreds of millions of residents went traveling and returned to their hometowns, there are signs that the wave of infections has peaked. The Chinese CDC’s chief epidemiologist estimated that 80 percent of the population may have been infected with Omicron, conferring some short-term immunity, and making an imminent second or third wave less likely.
As many citizens seek to put the pandemic behind them and local governments turn their attention to restoring economic growth, there have been a number of thoughtful essays exploring how three years of “zero-COVID” controls and the recent Omicron surge have affected China’s rural residents.
In this CDT translation of a WeChat essay by Caixin columnist Zhang Feng, the author writes about a recent Omicron outbreak in his hometown, a small village in Henan province. He describes how residents of his hometown dealt with the illness, notes a shift in how the villagers conceptualize the virus, and reminds readers of the ways in which lack of access to medical treatment and healthcare resources (particularly for elderly people) continues to exacerbate the urban-rural divide.
So it appears that my hometown, a small village in Henan province, has survived the “pandemic.”
My dad told me that every family in the village, and nearly every person, had caught a cold. Many have already recovered from their colds, and the younger folks felt better in just a day or two.
There are over 20 elderly people in the village, none of whom died from this particular wave of colds. No one called an ambulance, but if anyone had, there is no guarantee they would have shown up anyway. The real problem is that no one wants to call an ambulance, at such considerable expense.
People queued up to see the only doctor in the village. My mom also went to see him. She’d had a fever, but after it subsided, she couldn’t sleep. I suspected that the problem was her blood pressure. After she was given I.V. fluids, her symptoms abated and her sleep improved.
My dad also went to see the doctor. Once, when I called him, he happened to be waiting in line there. He complained that he’d come down with a cough, but the medication he’d taken hadn’t helped much, so he’d gone back to the doctor to get new meds. He said there were quite a few people in line, forty or so.
That doctor is an amazing guy. Long ago, when he first started practicing medicine, he treated my great-grandmother. Later, when my grandfather was in the final stages of esophageal cancer, I went to the clinic and asked him to come round and treat grandpa. (At the time, I remember thinking it was a bit ridiculous—it’s not as if his cancer was curable.) He’s the main doctor my parents rely on, and once, after I’d graduated from junior high and stepped on a glass bottle, he was the one who came and bandaged up my foot.
It should be said that everyone who was infected had the opportunity to receive treatment from him. That said, there are no effective treatments for COVID-19 here (there are overseas, but they have to be imported), and no cure for it. The fact that everyone in the country is taking Ibuprofen illustrates that there really is no suitable medicine available. But the doctor surely has ample experience treating colds.
I think the most important thing was that he provided treatment and reassurance, a role much like that of a general practitioner.
For the past ten or so days, I’ve been keeping a close eye on my parents. In my view, the most significant thing has been a subtle shift in discourse: people in my hometown no longer think of COVID-19 as a “pandemic,” but rather as a cold. “Every household has caught a cold,” they say, so there’s nothing to be scared of.
No one here has ever seen an antigen test before. People got sick, came down with fevers, and then recovered. No one here tested positive for COVID-19, because no one took antigen tests—they don’t even know what an antigen is. Over the last three years, however, there have been many rounds of mass nucleic-acid testing. Sometimes, to cut costs, members of the same family were made to share the same nucleic-acid test tube.
My mom thinks the weather is a factor. “It hasn’t rained in ages,” she says. “It’s minus four degrees, but it hasn’t snowed. If it had rained, there wouldn’t be this many people catching colds.”
Of course, this shift in discourse is a form of self-consolation—because apart from this, what else can they do? They don’t have the means to compete for scarce medical resources and treatments. And it’s impossible to buy fever-reducing medication in town; my dad had to go all the way to Anhui province to get hold of some. When I was little, the adults would always go to Anhui whenever they needed something they couldn’t get locally.
You’d be hard-pressed to say that my hometown has gained any kind of experience at all fighting the pandemic. If I had to sum it up, I’d say that fundamentally, people have just resigned themselves to their fate. They’re more concerned when their kids get fevers, because children represent the entire family’s future. But adults just tough it out and wait for the illness to pass, figuring a little cold never killed anyone.
As for the elderly, they’ve already come up with another form of coping mechanism, the idea that “If God really wants you to go, there’s not much you can do.” Luckily, God didn’t lose his temper this time around. Perhaps it’s because this disaster-prone place has already suffered enough.
My hometown probably illustrates one facet of this country’s “most down-and-out places.” In rural Henan, the pandemic was markedly different than it was in Beijing. Those observing Beijing’s overwhelmed medical system must have thought, on that basis, that the situation in Henan would be many times worse. In fact, the scenario was quite different. In big cities, elderly people over the age of 80 were the focus of pandemic prevention campaigns, but in the village where I was raised, there are very few residents over the age of 80—people simply don’t live that long.
The “elderly” folks my dad refers to are actually people like him, in their sixties or seventies. The basic diseases that elderly big-city residents have to be on guard against—cancer, cerebrovascular diseases, and so on—have long been playing their role in the village, carrying away those whose time has come. While this is a great tragedy, it certainly isn’t something new.
This, then, is the even greater misfortune: when confronted with a virus like Omicron, it seems that everyone ought to be equal, but in fact, we see the urban-rural divide playing out even with this virus. Not only is there an inequality of resources and access to health care, there is also a vast urban-rural gulf in how health is perceived.
The countryside is, as ever, silent in this. Perhaps that is its fate. [Chinese]
Translation by Liddy L.