Disease and the cure: On China’s zero COVID strategy

China should reconsider its zero COVID strategy and follow science while opening up 

Updated - April 13, 2022 01:00 am IST

Published - April 13, 2022 12:05 am IST

For the past two weeks, China has locked down Shanghai, its financial centre. Many of its 26 million residents, confined to their apartments, have complained of acute food shortages. The government has struggled to supply every household with daily necessities, with the supply chain paralysed by China’s stringent measures under which every COVID-19 case, even if asymptomatic, is confined in government-run quarantine facilities. Food shortages are not the only problem. Many have said they are running out of medicines. Children who tested positive have been separated from their parents. The crisis has now ignited a debate on whether this strategy that enabled China to avoid a major second wave, still remains relevant when much of the rest of the world has returned to some form of normalcy thanks to vaccines. China is the only country still closed off from the rest of the world.

Signs are Beijing has no intention of changing course. The official Xinhua news agency on Sunday rebutted criticism over the policy saying “a dynamic zero-COVID approach remains crucial...” and “the repercussions of lowering the guard could be disastrous for... 1.4 billion people, including 267 million aged 60 or above”. With those numbers, it argued, China’s medical system “would risk a collapse”. Chinese officials point to Hong Kong’s experience. After two successful “zero COVID” years that allowed for normalcy, an Omicron outbreak this year led to 8,000 deaths there. Most were unvaccinated elderly residents. Beijing now finds itself in a bind. Opening up, it is feared, would mean many deaths among the elderly who have refused to get vaccinated. However, experts say one major reason for vaccine hesitancy is the “zero COVID” strategy, with the wide perception that risks from vaccines outweigh the risk of catching COVID. Zero COVID, in a sense, has become a victim of its own success. Politics is also as much a factor as public health. For two years, China’s government has hailed its model as a contrast to the West which saw high deaths and continues to tell its population that COVID is a dangerous disease that requires everyone to be hospitalised. Changing course now would not suit that narrative, particularly with President Xi framing China’s COVID response as one of his big legacies. Continuing on the current path, however, will bring rising economic and social costs. Rather than trumpet zero COVID and criticise living with the virus as irresponsible, China would be better served looking at the examples of countries that have successfully opened up and followed the science, as in Singapore, which aggressively vaccinated its population and incentivised it to do so by setting a timetable for opening. Otherwise, as the continued suffering in Shanghai has shown, the cure risks becoming worse than the disease.

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