In January my 80-year-old grandmother had a large birthday party in her home city of Nanjing. For the British branch of her family, stuck in lockdown, it was surreal to see photos and videos of what can only be described as a banquet. A hundred people hugging, drinking, laughing — it was as if Covid didn’t exist. Normal life seemed to have returned to China, while in England even outdoor dining was a fantasy.
Seven months on, the British are the ones ditching masks, hugging friends and heading to the beach while the Chinese face what state media has called the most serious domestic recurrence of the virus since the start of the pandemic. The fresh outbreak started in Nanjing, which the rest of China now views with the same mix of sympathy and disdain it once did Wuhan. Masks, health codes and mass testing are back. No more parties. My grandmother stays at home every day, WeChatting her siblings in the nearby city of Yangzhou, also badly hit.
Thirteen provinces across the country have recorded new cases of Covid. An annual international film festival in Beijing is one of many mass events that have been cancelled. Air China bookings are down 25 per cent in a month. In Zhengzhou, which was hit recently by flash floods and now by Covid, contract workers who have lost their gigs have been seen sleeping on the streets.
The national case numbers are very low by British standards: just under 2,000 active cases across the whole country, compared with our 30,000 a day. Like Australia and New Zealand, China is pursuing a ‘zero Covid’ strategy. Its border policy is ludicrously strict, requiring up to four weeks of hotel quarantine. It’s no wonder then that international flight arrivals are still 95 per cent lower than before the pandemic. The quarantine effectively shuts out casual tourists and the homesick diaspora. It’s been two years since I’ve seen my family in China.
The Chinese media often likes to portray the western approach of ‘learning to live with the virus’ as reckless or an admission of defeat. Last week, the state epidemiologist Zhang Wenhong dared to suggest that China will eventually have to ‘co-exist’ with Covid. His university is now investigating his doctoral thesis over allegations of plagiarism which were dug up in an online witch-hunt.
Last summer it looked as if China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy had led to a swift return to normality, with only (officially) 5,669 deaths across the country since the start of the pandemic. But today, as most western countries vaccinate their way out of the pandemic, China’s leaders have boxed the country in. How long can this go on? The border policy, effective at first, was always supposed to be temporary. Vaccination is the only way out. But China has fallen behind in the race to immunity.
To fully vaccinate its population, China would need an astronomical three billion jabs plus boosters (by comparison, the UK’s much-lauded rollout has given out 88 million). On the face of it, Beijing appears to be doing well. It’s given out 1.8 billion doses — almost half of the world’s total so far.
Yet it’s not enough. All those jabs have been made in China (no foreign vaccines have been approved for use), which creates its own problems. We now know that Sinovac is essentially ineffective until two weeks after the second dose (by comparison, Pfizer offers 85 per cent protection after the first jab, and AstraZeneca 76 per cent). Peer-reviewed data for the other jabs, including Sinopharm’s two vaccines, are hard to come by. Countries like Chile have found out that Sinovac does not stop huge Covid waves. Other recipients of Chinese vaccines — like Thailand and the UAE — are now offering AstraZeneca or Pfizer booster jabs to those who had a Chinese-made first dose. It doesn’t bode well for overall Chinese immunity. Regulators are now looking at approval for Pfizer booster shots, but China only has 100 million doses of the American vaccine.
Beijing wants the rollout to be voluntary. Some local authorities have bribed people to get jabs with iPhone lottery draws, toiletries and even boxes of eggs. The central government has (so far) rejected vaccine passports.
Vaccine coverage is patchy. Whereas 38 million doses have been administered in Beijing (almost enough for everyone in the city to be double jabbed), in economic and political backwaters like Ningxia (pop. seven million) and Gansu (pop. 26 million), only enough doses have been distributed to double jab at most a fifth of the population. My home province of Jiangsu (pop. 80 million) doesn’t release its vaccination figures.
Though there is no age breakdown of national vaccination numbers, we can guess that the most vulnerable are not the most protected. China has chosen not to vaccinate by age and instead made vaccinations available to 18- to 59-year-olds all at once. Regulators initially said they needed more time to determine the safety of the Chinese vaccines for the old and vulnerable, which didn’t do much to instil public confidence in the jabs. The rollout has since opened up to include the elderly, but when my grandmother tried to get her first jab this month she found that first doses had been paused during the new outbreak. Vaccinations have now resumed, but this time children as young as 12 are eligible, which means my grand-mother may end up getting her vaccine later than a teenager who is more than 1,000 times less likely to die from Covid.
I can’t help but wonder if it was the right decision to send her back to China in April last year. If she had stayed with us in the UK, she’d have had her vaccine on the NHS long ago. I now doubt I’ll be able to see her by her 81st birthday, or even her 82nd. Back in March, Chris Whitty said that, in Britain, a new wave of Covid would meet a wall of vaccinated people. In China, the wall is still far from finished.
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