Why China Can't Backtrack On Its 'Zero COVID' Policy

Chinese citizens have been protesting the government's aggressive lockdown measures in cities across the country.

China, deemed a success story in the early days of the pandemic for keeping the virus at bay while also being the only major economy to report GDP growth in 2020, increasingly looks like it has pushed itself into a corner by sticking to its “zero COVID” policy.

Three years into pandemic, people in China appear fed up and prepared to take a stand against the draconian measures that have seen entire cities locked down.

In a strong sign of opposition to President Xi Jinping’s ruling party, people took to the streets over the weekend in at least eight cities, animated by reports of a deadly fire in an apartment building in Urumqi, which has been under lockdown for months. Some suggested anti-COVID measures hindered rescue efforts in the blaze that killed 10 people and injured nine. Authorities have denied the allegations.

The government has since tried to regain control, suppressing protests planned for Monday. In Beijing, police officers flooded protesters’ meeting point, forcing the cancellation of a demonstration, according to the BBC.

Meanwhile, Chinese cities started rolling back some of their coronavirus measures. Beijing on Monday said it will no longer erect barriers blocking apartment compounds where positive cases are found, according to The Associated Press.

But backtracking from the zero COVID policy altogether poses serious challenges for Xi — and may not be best for public health anyway, experts said.

China’s Current COVID Policy

The Chinese government has adopted what it calls a “dynamic zero” COVID approach. When even a small outbreak is located, the country conducts mass testing, and imposes quarantine and lockdown mandates to prevent the virus from spreading.

Earlier in the pandemic, other countries had similar policies, including Australia and New Zealand.

China is the world’s only major economy sticking to this approach, according to the BBC.

China, with a vast population of over 1.4 billion, has managed to keep its reported COVID death toll significantly lower than other countries — recording over 30,100 deaths and a total of over 9.6 million cases since the start of the pandemic. The U.S., with a population of over 331 million, has recorded a total of more than 97 million confirmed cases and over 1 million deaths.

While China’s policy has come with costs, the government appears determined to maintain it.

“Our COVID-19 policy is the most scientifically effective, the most economical, and yields the best result,” China’s People’s Daily newspaper declared, according to CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout.

Relying On Lockdowns

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, on Monday said China’s reliance on lockdowns to curb infections without taking action to improve the country’s long-term ability to fight COVID may be counterproductive.

Lockdowns “should always be a temporary phenomenon, not a long-range strategy,” Fauci said.

“You should do it with a purpose in mind to allow you to open,” he told CNN’s “The Lead.” “And the best purpose is while you’re shutting down get as many people vaccinated as you possibly can with a good vaccine.”

The Role Of Vaccines

Many countries have managed to resume a degree of normality by relying heavily on mRNA vaccines, like the ones produced by Pfizer and Moderna, to build immunity in the population — especially with the emergence of more transmissive variants like omicron. Those shots have proven effective against severe disease and also lessen the chance of infection.

China has focused on domestically produced vaccines that have been less effective. The government has not approved the mRNA vaccines.

Two doses of China’s Sinovac shot offer 70% protection against severe disease or death. Two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are 90% effective at preventing severe disease or death, according to the BBC.

An exception was recently made for foreign nationals in China following a visit by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to the Chinese capital. Those people now have access to the Pfizer shot.

“It’s madness to turn away from the proven vaccines,” Peter Frankopan, professor of global history at Oxford University, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “It’s quite clear that the Chinese proprietary vaccines aren’t as effective.”

This predicament, Frankopan said, exposes a key vulnerability of authoritarian systems: “When bad decisions get made, it’s very hard to turn them around.”

Low Vaccination Rate Among The Elderly

Elderly citizens, those most at risk from COVID, have resisted getting vaccinated. Only 40% of those over 80 years old have been vaccinated despite efforts by the government to boost uptake, according to The Washington Post.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, told ABC’s “This Week” that expanding the vaccination rate, especially in this age group, “is the path out of this virus.”

China’s National Health Commission on Tuesday appeared more determined to increase vaccine uptake among seniors, but didn’t make the shots mandatory. Nursing home residents who refuse the vaccine will now have to provide a justification, the commission said, and the government will use data to find individuals who need the protection offered by the shots, according to Bloomberg.

Dr. Stephen Griffin, an associate professor at the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds, said the best way to tackle COVID is a balanced approach.

“You can’t just rely on vaccines, and you can’t just rely on nonpharmaceutical interventions,” Griffin told HuffPost. “You need both to try and get control of this pandemic.”

The best option for China would be to keep curbs in place while working to get the population vaccinated with more effective vaccines, and then gradually ease restrictions, Griffin explained.

The Risk Of Loosening Restrictions

A full reopening of China at this stage could have dramatic ramifications for the country, with cases surging and 5.8 million people needing admission to intensive care, according to Bloomberg Intelligence senior pharmaceutical analyst Sam Fazeli.

The possible spike in cases coupled with the country’s ICU bed shortage — with only 3.6 ICU beds available per 100,000 people — would likely overwhelm the hospital system. That grim scenario leaves the government with no good options at the moment.

Rolling back restrictions, Griffin said, could risk “excruciating” human costs.

“If China wants to eventually stop having to act this way, they’re either going to have to accept a massive outbreak, which I don’t imagine that any health care system could deal with, or want to deal with in a humanitarian sense, or they have to get better vaccines,” Griffin said.

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