China is facing its worst Covid-19 nightmare since the outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020 with large numbers of cases in Shanghai, Beijing and several other cities. As of April 25, 2022, 45 cities with 373 million people representing around 38% of its population and 40% of its gross GDP were under partial or full lockdown, according to one estimate. The Chinese government led by its President Xi Jinping follows a zero tolerance policy for Covid which implies that even if there are few infections, the population of the whole locality will be tested and people who test positive, even with mild symptoms. , will be compulsorily sent to government quarantine camps. People were banned from leaving their homes and forced to eat government-provided food, which in some cases was woefully inadequate.
In early May, more than 20 university professors across China criticized the Shanghai government’s “Covid excesses” where residents of a multi-storey building were sent to central quarantine because of a positive case or asked to hand over the keys to their apartments to local government staff for disinfection, mixing asymptomatic cases with positive cases and separating children from parents. Some people with comorbidities such as depression have taken their own lives to escape quarantine restrictions. In April 2022, an elderly person was taken for dead by the staff of a center for the elderly and sent to the morgue in Shanghai.
Zhang Zuofeng, a professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, published an article in late March 2022, saying Shanghai should allow home quarantine and rapid antigen testing rather than mass PCR testing. which increased the risk of cross-infection. As Omicron was highly transmissible and spread by aerosol, mass testing increased the risk of infection because staff had not undergone serious disinfection training, including changing gloves after each sample. Likewise, the virus has been spread by food and courier delivery people in the absence of adequate precautions.
Even World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said in a May 10 statement that China’s zero-tolerance policy was not sustainable given what was known. now on the behavior of the virus. Increased knowledge and better tools to fight the virus suggested it was time for a change in strategy and the WHO had discussed this with Chinese experts. WHO health emergencies director Mike Ryan said there must be a balance between control measures and their impact on society and the economy.
In the past, Xi Jinping had boasted that China was a “world leader” in preventing Covid-19 and that its governance was superior to that of democratic countries because it had controlled Covid-19 quickly with few deaths. and its economy had escaped severe damage from the virus. With Omicron now spreading across major parts of China for over five months and criticism mounting, Xi is now on the defensive. He continues to believe that once the virus is brought under control like Wuhan, economic recovery will follow.
A meeting of China’s Politburo held on May 5 stressed that the country must stick to its “dynamic zero-Covid” policy and that economic consequences will follow if it does not. He called on the country to “unite behind the decisions of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and resolutely fight against any questioning of virus control policies.” The politicized nature of Covid politics heightens fears that Xi’s authoritarian rule could take China back to the dark Maoist era when people’s lives were devastated by invasive ideological campaigns.
While China has vaccinated more than 80% of its population with its own vaccines, Sinopharm and Sinovac, the latter have lower efficacy rates, according to the WHO. The vaccination rate for people over the age of 60 remained low at 62%, as many people in this category suffering from various comorbidities showed little confidence in the local vaccine. Health infrastructure in China remains insufficient unlike in developed countries.
China’s defense of its zero-Covid policy, according to its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that “switching to other countries’ coexistence strategy would likely result in hundreds of thousands of daily cases that would devastate its medical system. . Critics say the government should also be sensitive to human suffering and control of the pandemic should be “scientific, precise and balanced” to be sustainable and effective.
According to Xu Jianguo, associate professor of economics at Peking University, the economic impact of this Omicron upsurge would be 10 times greater than that of the outbreak in Wuhan and could cost a loss of 2.68 trillion dollars. dollars to the Chinese economy. While the Wuhan epidemic has affected 13 million people, this one has already affected around 160 million. China is unlikely to achieve the 5.5% GDP growth target set by its government for 2022 or even the 2.3% achieved in 2020. Many businesses have been closed for weeks, many others are not. could not resume full production or export; small and medium-sized businesses have been hit hard, increasing unemployment and distress. Many foreign companies are quietly reducing and diverting their operations out of China due to the growing politicization of trade issues and China’s rivalry with the West.
Premier Li Keqiang and other proponents of economic reforms successfully persuaded President Xi Jinping to ease regulatory crackdown on tech companies, ease lending to property developers, support SMEs and resume financing infrastructures. There are signs that Xi has agreed to change his tough policy in areas where infections have fallen. The next 3-4 months will tell if Xi’s zero Covid policy will succeed in eliminating recurring waves of infection; otherwise, growing criticism could complicate Xi’s efforts to seek an unprecedented third term as president later this year.