China doubles zero-COVID in the face of its worst COVID-19 outbreak since Wuhan

Millions under lockdown. Mass testing. Deserted streets and public transport at a standstill. Scenes of daily life in many Chinese cities today are eerily reminiscent of the original outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019 and early 2020, when the coronavirus and COVID-19 grabbed headlines around the world.

But, more than two years later, China is battling a new wave of infections, fueled by the Omicron BA. 2 sub-variant, also known as Stealth Omicron. The use of strict containment measures, a playbook dating back to the very beginnings of the pandemic, underlines the official commitment to a zero COVID strategy that shows no signs of hesitation.
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In most other countries, the number of cases in China would not be considered a national emergency: Authorities reported 1,860 symptomatic infections and 1,338 asymptomatic on March 15. But the country’s older population is vulnerable—for some estimates there are 15 million people over the age of 80 in China who have not been vaccinated, while the number of intensive care beds per 100,000 people is low by the standards of advanced economies. Fearing that the stealth Omicron could lead to an epidemic out of control, with deaths that could number in the millions, the authorities pulled out all the stops. Makeshift hospitals and isolation centers are on the rise.

Read more: How Hong Kong Became China’s Biggest COVID-19 Problem

The epicenter of the infection is the northeastern province of Jilin, which borders North Korea and is home to 24 million people. On March 14, the entire province was placed under lockdown – the first time the measure was applied to an entire province since Hubei’s 2020 lockdown.

The day before, the 17.5 million inhabitants of the city of Shenzhen were also ordered to stay at home. Its epidemic was triggered by cases imported from neighboring Hong Kong, where experts estimate that 3.6 million people, or almost half the population, have contracted the virus.

Shenzhen is a major tech hub, home to major players like Oppo, Huawei and major iPhone maker Foxconn. The Apple supplier has decided to suspend operations in the city until it is “notified by the local government”. Many other mainland Chinese cities are under full or partial lockdown, including the financial capital Shanghai. Cases have been reported in more than half of the country’s 31 provinces.

The effect of the latest restrictions will be felt beyond China’s borders. “The lockdown measures imposed on some of the major industrial hubs like Shenzhen, it will not only affect the Chinese economy, it is also the cause of the disruption of the global supply chain,” says senior researcher Huang Yanzhong. in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Chen Wen/China News Service via Getty Images Medical workers perform a door-to-door nucleic acid test at a residential block under restrictions to stop the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus on March 14, 2022 in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China.

Will China move away from its zero COVID policy?

While some might have expected the highly transmissible BA.2 subvariant – now the predominant strain in China – to challenge zero-COVID limits, authorities continue to bet big on the strategy.

“Only by adhering to such an effective containment policy can China tackle the epidemic situation as soon as cases are detected, preventing massive infections, serious illnesses and deaths, and avoiding strain medical resources,” the official Xinhua news agency said, even as China reported some of its biggest one-day spikes since Wuhan.

Experts say zero-COVID is not purely a public health issue but also a political one, since any deviation from policy can be interpreted as an admission of fallibility by Chinese leaders during a sensitive year.

Despite being past retirement age, President Xi Jinping is widely expected to secure an unprecedented third term in 2022. If China backtracks on its zero-COVID approach, “it’s hard for them to present it as something other than a failure of a flagship policy of Xi Jinping. Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, told TIME.

Read more: Knowing the origins of COVID-19 will not change much

Some senior officials vaguely hinted at a change. On March 5, Premier Li Keqiang told the National People’s Congress that China’s pandemic strategy “will be constantly refined.” Deputy director of the State Council’s research office Xiang Dong said it was time to stop the “relaxed and excessive tendencies of prevention and control”.

Earlier, former Center for Disease Control and Prevention chief scientist Zeng Guang posted on social media that it was “humanity’s long-term goal to co-exist with the virus”.

But for now, a meaningful debate is quashed in the face of the doubling of the number of cases.

“To have cold feet about a commendable endeavor that the country sincerely pursues is tantamount to hesitating at the last attempt,” Xinhua said in its editorial. “The outcome could prove catastrophic for China and the world. China will stick to the aggressive zero COVID policy until the battle against the virus is won. »

As Tsang puts it, “If Xi Jinping feels vulnerable, he’s likely to go around the wagon.”


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