After three years of living under the world’s most stringent pandemic restrictions, thousands of people in China have taken to the streets in many cities, calling for an end to lockdowns and the “zero-COVID” policy. The ruling Communist Party of China would do well to listen. The unprecedented protests, on a scale not seen since 1989, reflect public weariness towards a policy that appears out of date. The lockdowns, mass testing and quarantining of infected cases and close contacts formed a strategy that helped China emerge faster than any other country out of the first COVID-19 wave, avoiding mass deaths seen in the rest of the world. The emergence of more transmissible but milder variants has, however, rendered that approach increasingly obsolete, particularly when vaccines are enabling countries to live with the virus. To deal with new variants, China’s lockdowns have grown harsher. In March, Shanghai was placed under a brutal two month-long lockdown that saw food and medicine shortages. It is no surprise that one of the biggest protests took place in China’s largest city. What will concern the leadership is that the call to end lockdowns from the mostly young protesters will have resonance, as the economic and social costs of zero-COVID grow. The trigger for the protests was an apartment fire in Urumqi that claimed 10 lives. The slow emergency response was widely seen as a result of lockdown measures.
The Chinese leadership has defended zero-COVID, warning that opening up will lead to mass deaths. That is, however, only because a large portion of the elderly population remains unvaccinated. Rather than continue to devote China’s considerable state capacity towards enforcing lockdowns, an urgent nationwide effort to vaccinate the vulnerable is long overdue. Data from Hong Kong shows three doses of Chinese vaccines, which are less effective than mRNA shots, work well enough to protect the elderly. The problem is China has dragged its feet on vaccinating its population. As of this month, 68% of the more than 250 million Chinese aged 60 and above had received three shots. For the 30 million Chinese aged 80 and above, only 40% have received three doses. The government fears that opening up with such a large vulnerable population would lead to a collapse of China’s health-care system and damage its credibility, with President Xi having personally backed the zero-COVID approach and framed it as a contrast to the West, which has seen mass COVID deaths. Completing the vaccination coverage and simultaneously phasing out the zero-COVID strategy seem the only way out.,