Major Chinese social media websites on Wednesday censored the WHO chief’s remarks after he said Beijing’s zero-tolerance approach to the coronavirus “will not be sustainable.”
At a press conference on May 10, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the UN agency, said the WHO had told Chinese experts that “moving to another strategy would be very important.” Sufficient knowledge of the virus and the availability of “right tools” meant that China’s zero COVID policy was no longer needed, he suggested.
The UN’s verified accounts on Weibo and WeChat, two of China’s most popular social networks, posted a Chinese translation of his remarks and a video of the press conference respectively. A few hours later, the Weibo post was deleted and the WeChat article sharing restricted, the embedded clip was blocked for “violating relevant laws and regulations”, reads a brief notice on the page.
WHO officials in Geneva said the overriding goals now were to reduce the number of severe cases and deaths from COVID, as well as to increase vaccination rates worldwide. Stopping transmission of all cases was “not possible”, said Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease expert with the agency’s health emergencies program.
Tedros, meanwhile, said current knowledge about the virus and the high transmissibility of the Omicron strain — a trait likely to be present in other variants in the future — gives Beijing an opportunity to move away from a zero COVID strategy.
“We have discussed this issue with Chinese experts, and we have indicated that the approach will not be sustainable,” the WHO chief said. “Given the behavior of the virus, I think a change will be very important.”
Michael Ryan, an epidemiologist who serves as executive director of the health emergencies program, alluded to the social impact China’s COVID regulations were having on certain sectors of the public. “All these actions, as we have said from the beginning, must respect individual and human rights.”
“We’ve always said as WHO that we have to balance control measures against the impact they have on society; the impact they have on the economy. It’s not always an easy calibration to do,” said Ryan, who noted that Tedros was holding detailed discussions with Chinese experts about an appropriate “exit strategy” for the country.
Despite what appears to be widespread public grievances in Shanghai and Beijing, major cities battling Omicron outbreaks, Chinese leaders have ordered health officials to stay the course on the country’s strict zero COVID strategy.
This policy is closely tied to the political legacy of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who last Thursday chaired a meeting of senior Communist Party of China officials in the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. The rally concluded with a vow to “resolutely fight against all words and deeds that distort, doubt or negate” China’s approach to COVID, state media reported.
The censorship of the WHO’s seemingly unflattering remarks seems to indicate that dissent on the now highly charged topic is not welcome, regardless of the source. To combat criticism, China’s ruling party has turned the total containment of the virus into a political campaign, with the Cultural Revolution-era phrase “perseverance is victory”.
That’s not to say Beijing doesn’t have legitimate concerns. The CCP’s Politburo said last week that allowing COVID to spread through the population could have “economic consequences.” On Tuesday, researchers from Fudan University in Shanghai published modeling in natural medicine which predicts up to 1.55 million deaths in China if the country changes course with the current vaccination rate.
Publicly available data shows that the Chinese government has fully vaccinated nearly 90% of the population, but many elderly people in the country remain unprotected. A nationwide outbreak, coupled with concerns about the lesser effectiveness of vaccines made locally in China, could overwhelm the health care system, the document said.
Anxiety over inadequate vaccination is particularly difficult to explain, given the long window Beijing has to approve popular mRNA injections like BioNTech, the German developer of the Pfizer vaccine used in the United States and elsewhere, including in the cities of Hong Kong and Macao.
In December 2020, BioNTech entered into an agreement with Fosun Pharma of Shanghai to supply mainland China with 100 million doses of the most effective mRNA vaccine. Nearly 18 months later, the shot is still awaiting regulatory approval. Fosun Pharma, which holds distribution rights for “Greater China” including Taiwan, said it was still in discussions with Chinese health authorities in March.
Health policy expert Yanzhong Huang said Newsweek Friday that concerns emanating from the Politburo have remained largely unchanged from the start. The virus, however, has changed, but that has not led to a new risk assessment in Beijing that could allow restrictions to be eased, he said.
Since April, China has made efforts to “institutionalize and routineize zero-COVID measures,” said Huang, who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Seton Hall University. PCR testing sites were “sprouting up like mushrooms in Chinese cities”, he said, a sign that the policy was here to stay.
“They are convinced that it will not have a lasting impact on China’s economic growth,” said Huang, who thinks Chinese leaders may be influenced by some “confirmation bias.”
In Shanghai, the bulk of the 25 million people are now in the middle of their sixth week of confinement. From more than 20,000, the city’s daily infections have fallen by the hundreds, but residents are still reporting increasingly brutal attempts to eradicate the virus by moving members of the public.
They have documented instances where contacts of positive cases were forced into centralized quarantine by workers wearing hazmat suits who broke into apartments by cutting through the front door. Videos on social media also appeared to show health inspectors climbing outside buildings to reach the windows of residents who refused to comply.
Across the city, where the metro has been closed, food insecurity and public dissent remain.
People in Beijing, still hoping to avoid a repeat of Shanghai’s fate, are seeing signs of creeping restrictions this week. Gated communities where positive cases have been found have been sealed off with fences, while close contacts are transferred to field hospitals for isolation.