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China’s biggest newspaper is sending mixed signals about long COVID

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Title iconThe News

People’s Daily — China’s biggest newspaper and mouthpiece for the Communist party — sparked confusion this week by publishing a story citing an infectious disease expert who seemed to suggest that there was no evidence to support the existence of long COVID.

This appeared to contradict the paper's previous story in July on how long COVID could become a public health concern for the United States.

China watchers were quick to point out the confusing narratives from the state media about Omicron and long COVID. Experts say the country has “no clear strategy” on its COVID messaging to the public.

Title iconKnow More

In a Nov. 30 People's Daily article, Sun Yat-sen University's Dr. Chong Yutian was quoted as saying: "There is no evidence to suggest that there are sequelae." The term "sequalae" refers to long-term consequences of an initial infection and is the common term used by Chinese people to refer to long COVID.

The article mentioned the new Omicron variant at the start of the piece, but it was unclear if Chong was implying there was no evidence for long COVID from just the Omicron variant or long COVID in general.

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Still, after the article was published on Wednesday, thousands of users on Weibo -- China's version of Twitter -- posted commentary with the hashtag #专家称目前无证据表明新冠有后遗症# or "Expert says that there is no evidence that there is [long COVID]."

Many users called out the head of China's CDC who just last month confirmed the existence of long COVID, according to 163.com, the news site of tech giant NetEase.

On Twitter, some China watchers noted that the People's Daily article contradicted its previous reporting on long COVID, including a July article with the headline: "[Long COVID] will become a public health concern in the United States."

As of Friday, the interview with Chong was no longer accessible on People's Daily website, though it remained live on other state media websites that republished the article. The Weibo hashtag and links to articles featuring the interview had also been censored on Chinese social media.

Title iconStep Back

The article in question is part of larger shift in tone from Chinese media and state officials on the severity of COVID following a series of unprecedented, nationwide anti-lockdown protests that rattled China this week.

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On Wednesday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan -- a central figure of Beijing's pandemic response -- said that the Omicron variant was weakening and vaccination rates improving. Experts interpreted it as a sign that the country may begin scaling back zero-COVID protocols soon.

Some China watchers like Josh Kurlantzick, a journalist and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, believe that the now-censored People's Daily article is an example of China not having a “clear strategy” on how to deal with Omicron.

In an interview with Semafor, Kurlantzick suggested that the article saying long COVID does not exist appeared to be redacted because the government didn’t want people who were very sick with Omicron or struggling with long COVID to express their anger on social media about the state deceiving them about it.

Title iconQuoteworthy
People are scared, you know? Some people have access to the outside world and others don't. They don't know what to believe. There's a lot of discussion [on articles] like this because you don't you don't know what's true, and you don't necessarily believe what the government says is true.

-- Josh Kurlantzick, Council on Foreign Relations Fellow

Title iconThe View From The United States

While there is still research needed to determine the extent of long COVID caused by the latest Omicron variant, the scientific community in the U.S. acknowledges that long COVID is a serious and debilitating medical condition, with some public health experts calling it the "next public health disaster in the making."

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