Is China's zero Covid game up?

16 March 2022

5:31 AM

16 March 2022

5:31 AM

Omicron has broken through China’s Covid wall. On Tuesday, the country saw a record-high of more than 5,000 cases, the highest number since the original Wuhan outbreak. To Brits (and most people around the world), that might sound like a laughably small number – but, as you might expect, China’s zero Covid machine has jumped into action, leading to a disproportionate, severe response.

In the most afflicted areas like Shenzhen and Changchun, public transport has been suspended, non-essential businesses closed, residential compounds locked down. People can leave their homes to take part in compulsory city-wide mass testing (social media is flooded with videos of lengthy unsocially-distanced queues at test sites) and, for now, to shop for necessities (one person per household, every other day). This is bliss compared to those who test positive or get contact traced. Positive cases must serve out their illness in state-designated clinics; and contacts of positive cases (and even contacts of contacts) must quarantine in state-designated facilities (hotels and so on). Entire families are packing their bags after a dreaded call, arriving in quarantine only a few hours later.

Shanghai looks to be the next city to fall to the country’s Covid zeal. The most populous city in China (a population of 25 million) recorded 150 new cases on Tuesday. So far, the city’s authorities have held fast: ‘we haven’t locked down, and we don’t need to lock down’, they insist. Yet it looks like it’s only a matter of time. Already, all university campuses have locked down with staff and students inside (the good news, authorities say, is that more mental health services are being provided…). Most flights have been grounded in Shanghai’s two airports, and residents are unable to leave the city unless ‘absolutely necessary’ (whatever that means), so long as they test negative in the 48 hours prior. Nationally, almost fifty cities are reporting locally transmitted cases, including Beijing, Xi’An, Tianjin, Zhejiang, Suzhou.

Needless to say, all this has an economic impact. Changchun is a major auto-manufacturing hub in China (accounting for a tenth of output in 2020) – the lockdown has halted car plants in the city, impacting foreign companies like Volkswagen and Toyota. In Shenzhen, China’s Silicon Valley, factories supplying Apple and Taiwanese chipmakers have been shut.

Only last week, premier Li Keqiang announced China’s 5.5 per cent GDP target for 2022. It’s the lowest target in three decades, which now looks more precarious than ever. But it’s not just the Chinese economy at stake – worldwide, the country’s stop-start manufacturing has caused a shortage of electronics, amongst other things, and contributed to record-high inflation.

All this pain is looking more bizarre than ever before, except the put-upon Chinese are not laughing. As the world comes out of the pandemic, with even previously zero Covid countries like New Zealand and Singapore allowing some level of background transmission (seven day averages being 19,000 and 15,000 respectively), China is still stuck in early 2020.

What’s more, Omicron is now widely accepted as a milder variant. In Shanghai, nine in ten locally transmitted infections have been asymptomatic, and of those from abroad, only one per cent of the 2,000 cases observed over the last six months have been severely ill. In Hong Kong, most of those who died were elderly or had pre-existing health conditions. But though the virus is milder, the public health response is as severe as ever.

There are signs that the government is – if not actively promoting – at least allowing experts to lay the groundwork for an exit strategy, to ready the population for the next phase. Last summer, Zhang Wenhong, a Shanghai epidemiologist beloved for his straight talking (dubbed ‘Golden Mouth’ by social media users), was the victim of a Weibo-storm. He’d dared to suggest that China will eventually need to ‘co-exist’ with the virus. Outraged keyboard warriors even whipped up a plagiarism inquiry against him, which, of course, found nothing. This week, he has bravely ventured onto the platform again to set out the ways in which China can extricate itself from the zero Covid trap: ‘Eliminating fear must be the first step we take’. This time, instead of almost universal outrage, the comments were filled with supportive messages appreciative of his expertise and clarity.

Could the platform’s censors have been told to allow more positive discussions about living with Covid? And could public opinion be shifting towards an exit strategy, as Omicron reveals the absurdity of the zero Covid policy today? There were already earlier signs of fatigue – online, desperate cries of more pandemic support and less stringency have come from those in Ruili, a small border city which has gone through five lockdowns.

Zeng Guang has made the case for a ‘China-style coexistence plan’ which will ‘be our own approach with our own characteristics’. Zhang Wenhong gives an idea of the necessary next steps – triple-jabbing the elderly and the most vulnerable (China’s vaccine rollout has not been age-prioritised); developing better vaccines and antivirals; moving to home testing and home quarantine; and creating more surge capacity in hospitals. Even Zhang, however, points out that none of this can be done quickly. China can’t open up overnight without catastrophically overwhelming its healthcare system.

Omicron may well kick policymakers into the next phase. The zero Covid policy was not designed to deal with a wildly spreading but ultimately mild virus. The greater freedom afforded to experts like Zhang is a hopeful sign that there are those in Beijing who agree. But first, China has to get its current wave under control.

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