China’s act of tough love: Battling Omicron

BY ALICE STANDEN

China adheres by the zero-Covid policy. As long as there is a single positive COVID case, all residents in the city will be called on to do nucleic acid testing to actively identify those who carry the virus and to carry out medical prevention and treatment.


Following a sudden nationwide surge in Covid cases, China has forced “virus hotspots” into lockdown, after seeing the highest number of cases in over two years. The country reported a record 20,472 new Covid-19 cases daily, after the number of cases rapidly doubled over the course of 24 hours, due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant and a spike in asymptomatic cases. In the wake of this recent wave, China has reported the first 2 Covid-19 deaths in over a year. Zhang Yan, an official with the Jilin provincial health commission, told the press that “the emergency response mechanism in some areas is not robust enough [and] there is insufficient understanding of the characteristics of the Omicron variant”.

Following an outbreak in early March, China’s “zero-Covid” strategy has been tested to its limits by a fresh wave of the Omicron variant. The country has been tackling virus clusters with a pick-and-mix of hyper-local lockdowns, mass testing, and citywide closures: several cities have been forced back into lockdown, (including Shenyang, an industrial city of 9 million people), since the outbreak. Previous outbreaks in China have been managed successfully, using these techniques, but the Omicron variant is challenging previous strategies, due to it being much more contagious. More than 20,000 people have been infected in the wave of the Omicron strain, in the country’s biggest Covid-19 outbreak since the disease emerged from Wuhan in 2019.

Factories are planning to operate as highly isolated “bubbles”, as the local lockdowns in manufacturing and technology hubs Shenzhen and Dongguan risk causing further disruptions to the overstretched global supply chain. These bubbles require workers to remain on premises: for example, 200 workers agreed to live at dormitories on site at a Bosch Unipoint factory, which enabled production to continue during a week-long lockdown. However, Chinese internet users have voiced concerns about workers being forced to live in substandard conditions on company campuses. Some workers in Shanghai opted to sleep on factory floors in order to make sure they can get to work, due to restrictions on localised movement, and therefore continue to get paid. Dongguan Fuqiang Electronic, who supplies electronics to Apple, also elected to remove photos that were uploaded of their factory workers living in tents, in order to avoid criticism.

There are already concerns about what ongoing lockdowns could mean for the economy, both on a domestic level and worldwide. Goldman Sachs estimated a month-long lockdown of 30% of China could see GDP drop by one percentage point. This is why many Chinese factories are enacting “bubbles” and “closed loops” policies to minimise economic disruption.

Furthermore, there are political concerns about the containment of Covid-19, which has already led to conflict between the Hong Kong government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It seems that the CCP is now heading towards a dire outbreak mirroring that of Hong Kong. The CCP has previously shown much ire towards Hong Kong for its mishandling of the virus. Professor Chi Chunhuei, director of the Centre for Global Health at Oregon University, has argued that the “political legitimacy [of the CCP] hinges on its capability to provide Chinese people with a stable and safe life, for which containing the Covid-19 infection is critical”. If containment fails to control the latest outbreak, the caseload among a population of 1.4 billion people will be huge and could lead to a major backlash against the CCP, similar to the current government dissatisfaction seen in the UK.

Back in 2020, China’s lockdown strategy was being held up as the model to follow by scientists and the World Health Organisation (WHO), who praised the “uncompromising and rigorous use” of lockdown methods, suggesting that it “[provided] vital lessons for the global response”. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, even said that China was “setting a new standard for outbreak response”. However, the “zero-Covid” policy relies on heavily restricted borders and travel, as well as locking down most of the country: this is unsustainable when the rest of the world is now preparing to “live with” Covid-19 for the foreseeable future. The strict policy may have been successful, if not admirable, at the start of the pandemic, but China can’t remain locked down for too long without risking political and economical collapse. It’s likely that the CCP will have to change its current “dynamic zero” policy to manage the Omicron variant.

Vaccine hesitancy has also become a major problem in China, due to what Chi calls “the paradox of the zero-Covid policy”. Due to the successful controlling of outbreaks, the risk of infection was “close to zero”, which means the perceived risks of taking the vaccine were higher than the benefits during the last two years. Currently, there is an estimated 17 million people aged over 80 who aren’t fully vaccinated, more than half of people in the age group, and only 19.7% have had a booster, according to health authorities. Many of those unvaccinated are following their doctor’s advice, as health professionals aren’t uniformly encouraging vaccination like in other countries - citizens have lamented on the social media platform, Weibo, that hospitals have refused to vaccinate their elderly parents if they have any other health conditions. This makes it difficult for China to “co-exist” with the virus, in the same that countries with higher vaccination rates can, and means that China was largely unprepared for the more viral variant.

What happens in China next remains to be seen: it could be that lockdown measures succeed in preventing the spread of the latest wave, as it has done with previous local outbreaks, but this seems unlikely with the highly contagious Omicron variant. As well as scientists and international media, social media users in China have criticised the “zero-Covid” policy as being outdated and have called on officials to rethink their strategy. This combined pushback against current Chinese policies may force the CCP to change their “dynamic zero” approach to the virus, although it’s unlikely Beijing will adopt Western strategies willingly. At least, China has begun to encourage vaccination and is now advocating free vaccination programs on a national level, which will help citizens combat a future that isn’t the utopian “zero-Covid” China they were dreaming of.


Image: Flickr/ QuantFoto