The fact that China’s authorities will no longer report asymptomatic cases sounds technical but it’s really significant.
It means the public will never know how bad the current dramatic surge of infections sweeping this country is.
For the vast majority of the pandemic China has reported symptomatic and asymptomatic coronavirus cases separately. While it’s always been a little unclear how “asymptomatic” has been defined, it has been this number throughout that has made up the vast majority of daily infections.
Not reporting it essentially means the rate at which the virus is now ripping through China will be shrouded in secrecy.
The authorities say the reason for the decision is that many people without symptoms are no longer participating in testing, making it hard to accurately tally the real numbers.
This is definitely true, people are now able to access COVID-19 lateral flow tests (they had previously been banned), and as the virus rips through cities like Beijing a nervous population would prefer to stay inside and self-test.
But there is also anecdotal evidence that in the face of the sheer numbers of infected people, the testing system had also somewhat collapsed. To take myself as an example, I took six publicly-administered tests in seven days last week and only received one result.
But there may also be a desire to obscure just how widespread infections are.
This is an administration that has undertaken a staggering, breathtaking 180 degree turn on its zero-COVID policy, with seemingly little planning or preparation.
This is still a very large population with low levels of immunity, low levels of vaccination among the elderly and an under-resourced hospital system with not enough ICU beds.
But despite all this the reopening was not preceded by concerted vaccination drives or major efforts to expand intensive care capacity.
It has not been undertaken in stages like in many other countries.
And people were not given the chance to pre-buy cold and flu medication, meaning there have been lengthy queues outside pharmacies.
Things feel like they have literally gone from 100 to zero in the space of a few days, with the propaganda machine desperately peddling the handbrake turn messaging from “this is a deadly virus to be feared” to “it’s just like a cold, treat yourselves at home and don’t worry”.
China adjusting COVID rules will enable economy to pick up, says premier
China rolling back strict rules is the clearest sign yet that zero COVID is on its way out
China signals it is preparing its people to live with the disease
Abandoning a commitment to effective testing and numbers reporting feels like another way this regime is not giving itself the tools to prepare – if the spread isn’t being monitored how can it be managed?
But all the propaganda in the world is not going to be able to alter or control how Chinese people experience this outbreak and how they talk about it.
In Beijing the virus is absolutely rampant, everyone knows dozens of people infected. It’s all anyone is talking about.
Chinese social media is awash with images of sheep, because in Chinese the word for “positive” and the word for “sheep” have the same pronunciation: Yang.
And the government will be unable to mitigate for grieving families, sadly it feels there may well be many.
China is currently almost certainly obscuring death numbers. There have likely been more than one million infections since the start of November and only six reported deaths.
That seems incredibly unlikely, especially given the fact that among the over-80s only 40% of people have had a booster jab (seen as essential for the less effective Chinese vaccine).
If hospitals, morgues and crematoriums start becoming overrun people will notice and they will be angry.
It could pose a moment of huge challenge for the Chinese Communist Party.
Accusations that officials covered up the start of the pandemic in Wuhan lead to fury among the Chinese public. Obscuring facts to protect image at the expense of people’s safety is a deeply raw issue.
The party has clearly banked on the most recent variants of omicron being benign enough to prevent major catastrophe, you can only hope they have calculated corrected.
But the zero-COVID policy bought this government a lot of time to plan a controlled and low impact reopening.
Many may ask if that time has been wasted.