Wind-blown rolling waves never stay

[Updates Below] In late 2019 and early 2020 something strange was happening in China. Sparse reports and lush rumors swirled. As is often the case with China, we were left listening to the contours of silence much more than anything else.

I watched and listened with increasing alarm, but also with deep uncertainty. It was not until the third week in January that I decided to risk my own credibility and start raising concerns among my colleagues and clients.

Humility is a practical virtue. Fear of ridicule is never helpful. I should have written and said much more, much sooner.

Today’s reports on coronavirus in China are more prominent than three years ago. Yet too much still depends on listening to “silence as a cancer grows.” (Here, here, and here, to sample just a few.) But there are also plenty of signals. Here is what Reuters reports this morning:

China’s chief epidemiologist Wu Zunyou on Saturday said the country was in the throes of the first of three COVID waves expected this winter, which was more in line with what people said they are experiencing on the ground… Beijing city official Xu Hejian told reporters on Monday COVID was spreading fast in the capital, putting pressure on medical resources. Still, more restrictions will be lifted, with previously-closed venues located underground, from bars to internet cafes, allowed to re-open, Xu said.

Over the last three weeks — following widespread protests — China has diverged from a rigorous process of required testing and radical social distancing. The sudden shift has, so far, prompted a fearful self-distancing that quickly gutted the protests and has probably slightly slowed virus transmission. But transmission is well-underway and will not now be contained… during winter in a dense population that is unevenly-vaccinated and in which immunity to a wide range of viral activity is now reduced (as we have seen with seasonal flu and RSV in the United States).

Recent strains of the 2019 novel coronavirus are not as lethal to otherwise healthy hosts as earlier variants. But in coming months the scope and scale of illness and death in China is likely to be extreme. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has projected a sharp spike early next year. This will seriously disrupt China’s economy. Over the next six months this disruption is likely to be more troublesome than the economic constraints that the Zero-Covid policy caused. This has global supply chain implications with reduced outbound flows from China and less predictability just about everywhere.

The coronavirus continues to evolve. Future mutations are beyond confident prediction, but more evasive and lethal versions are possible. The more infections, the more mutation possibilities. Several million more mutation factories will open in the months ahead.

Risk is the outcome of threats interacting with vulnerabilities to a range of consequences. Likelihoods — best guesses — involve both upside and downside potential. Especially with the virus that causes covid, there are very few certainties.

But there is a strong likelihood of discounting risk. We see discounting (or denial) on a wide range of risks, but it was especially obvious in 2020 as illness and death in Wuhan and elsewhere was being reported. From the December solstice to the March equinox much of the world behaved as if what happens in China stays in China. When this perception was disproven, much of the world responded with a level of surprise that amplified risks too-long denied.

As we approach Wednesday’s 2022 solstice, deja vu all over again?

I hope not. It is, however, in our shared self-interest to soberly, systematically recognize this emerging risk; thinking and talking through appropriate mitigation measures: personal and social, local and global, especially in regard to flows of water, food, fuel, pharmaceuticals, and other critical freight. If we had 2020 to do over, what would we do differently? I don’t suggest the answers are obvious. But meaningful discussions now can displace surprise and amplify readiness (instead of risk).

The title of this post is taken from a Tang dynasty poem:


My translation:

Nine bends of the Yellow River flow with sand from far away
Emerging of sky’s edge wind-blown rolling waves never stay
Searching for the source I travel deep into the Milky Way…

My making of meaning: Knowing source and cause may well be beyond our capacity, but flow and its contents are clear enough. Given what we do know, we should prudently engage flows to minimize harm and maximize benefit.

Too poetic? Insufficiently empirical? Probably. But confronted with deep uncertainty, I have experienced the poetic and empirical to be effective partners.

Best wishes for the New Year fast approaching.


December 20 Updates: A reader has sent me a new World Bank update on China. Thank you. Here is an excerpt from the Executive Summary:

High frequency indicators suggest another growth slowdown in the fourth quarter amid a return of high COVID-19 cases. Despite fiscal and monetary policy support, real GDP growth is expected to slow to 2.7 percent in 2022—1.6 percentage points lower than projected in the June China Economic Update. In 2023 growth is projected to recover to 4.3 percent but remain below the potential rate. China has been moving quickly toward reopening since November 2022, with public health measures being eased rapidly. During the initial stage of reopening COVID infections will rise sharply and might lead to voluntary reduction in social interactions, which will weigh on consumer demand and may lead to continued disruption even after restrictions are lifted. These impacts of the initial exit wave are expected to be concentrated in the first quarter of next year…

Later in the report China’s strategic risks are summarized, including climate change, an unstable real estate market with related macroeconomic challenges, and “uncertain global growth prospects, sharper-than expected tightening in financial conditions, and heightened geopolitical tensions…” The World Bank authors do note, “In China, 69 percent of over 60-year-olds had received a booster dose as of mid-November 2022, but the vaccination rate was just 38 percent for over 80-year-olds…” Risks of the so-called exit wave spawning mutations are not referenced. The report is titled, “Navigating Uncertainty: China’s Economy in 2023“.

The Washington Post editorial board apparently shares the concerns I have outlined above. The headline: China’s new covid nightmare could become a global catastrophe.

December 21 Updates:

Bloomberg reports: Chinese cities and factories tell people with covid to go back to work and China’s covid tsunami could spark a dangerous new variant that infects the world

Reuters reports: Corporate China struggles with supply snags and demand slump as covid cases spread

South China Morning Post reports: China to track covid mutations through national hospital network

December 22 Updates:

Wall Street Journal reports: Undercounted deaths cloud China’s zero-covid exit

Reuters reports: Shanghai hospital warns of ‘tragic battle’ as covid spreads

December 23 Updates:

The Financial Times reports: Covid overwhelms Beijing’s hospitals

Bloomberg reports: Shanghai port strives to keep global trade moving despite covid (successfully so far) and China’s soaring covid cases push economic activity off a cliff.

In the South China Morning Post, Wang Xiangwei comments: Morgues overwhelmed: why China’s new covid crisis is all of its own making

In the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Ezekial Emanuel comments:

Over the past three years, there have been more than 650 million confirmed Covid cases world-wide. Public-health authorities have identified six “variants of concern”—those that have increased transmissibility, increased disease severity, reduced neutralizing antibodies or reduced effectiveness of existing treatments and vaccines… Having 800 million people in China infected will increase the likelihood of dangerous new variants. Making matters worse, the Chinese New Year is Jan. 22, and hundreds of millions of Chinese will travel and gather to celebrate. (Three years ago the city of Wuhan went ahead with a massive New Year’s banquet amid the original outbreak.) The easing of China’s international travel restrictions will disperse any new variants to other countries.

January 12, 2023 Update: “Poetry knows we are as close as a feather to disaster.” Marianne Boruch