China has made three world firsts in this pandemic — first country to experience the pandemic, first country to impose drastic response measures, and the first country to bring the pandemic under control.
Throughout the pandemic, the Chinese government has followed a strict zero-COVID strategy to suppress case numbers. Full and partial lockdowns, mandatory PCR tests for all citizens, sending people who tested positive to hospitals and closing down borders are just some of the countless measures that they have taken. However, China is finding it harder to contain the pandemic with newer variants that have a higher transmission rate, on top of angry and unsatisfied citizens of the country. Now that the lockdowns have ended, it is a good time for the Chinese Government to reflect on their previous policies.
In March of 2022, the outbreak of the highly contagious omicron variant spiked case numbers to an all-time high, lockdowns were implemented in multiple cities including Jilin, Shenyang, Suzhou, Langfang, Shenzhen, Shanghai and more. On March 28, China announced the largest city-wide lockdown since the pandemic in which Shanghai will be locked down in two stages. Shanghai was split into two sections. Lockdowns would first be conducted on the east side of the city, then the west side. During that period, mass PCR tests were conducted to all citizens in the city, all flights in and out of Shanghai were cancelled, and no one was allowed to leave their homes.
The city of Shanghai became the country’s COVID-19 epicentre after a surge in cases. Shanghai’s lockdowns have hit operations at the city’s ports, causing disruptions on the logistical chain to the manufacturing hubs nearby. There were videos on social media sites indicating panic buying to stock up supplies in the city. Just in mainland China alone, by 9th April, it was estimated that 23 cities, with around 193 million people residing, had been implementing full or partial lockdowns.
The cost of trying to maintain zero-COVID cases is becoming apparent. The retail sales of consumer goods shrank 11.1% from a year ago, the biggest drop since March 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics in China. The most affected regions, mainly Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, account for 16.7% of the national GDP. It is expected that the latest outbreak could hit at most 1% of the expected GDP growth in the first half of 2022.
On top of that, citizens are angry and unsatisfied with how the government handled the outbreak. Even with the strict internet censorship in China, there have been countless people who expressed their dissatisfaction and disappointment on Chinese social media sites like Weibo and QQ where users would also share news of people not getting food or medicine while being locked down.
The infection rate of Omicron is at least 5 to 10 times that of Delta, the most infectious variant in the COVID-19 epidemic before Omicron. The infectious disease control methods that were used to contain SARS and H7N9 from the past would not be effective to contain Omicron. Countries that had previously implemented zero-COVID policies could not stop the rapid spread of Omicron. For example, Singapore was the first country to change its strategy and give up on their zero-COVID policy.
In China’s case, zero-COVID is more like a political mission than a public health measure. President Xi is trying to create an image of peace in the country before the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party where he will be running for re-election. Xi does not want to see a huge number of confirmed cases, which will be detrimental to his re-election.
In most European and North American countries, people who tested positive to COVID are asked to stay home. They self-isolate at home and take medicine to rest, the symptoms will disappear in about three to five days. Everyone treats it like a flu. However, China has adopted such an extreme and costly COVID policy, which has caused great inconvenience and harm to the people.
In order to maintain zero-COVID, China probably did not consider how to end the pandemic, as a lot of preparation must be made beforehand. One of the most important preparations is to have at least half of its population with sufficient immunity, whether it is natural immunity or from vaccines. However, research has proven that the protection of the Sinovac vaccine, the main vaccine that is given to Chinese citizens, is not sufficient. Therefore if the population does not have sufficient immunity, and China continues to insist on their policies, then China’s borders won’t be able to open for a long time, and they will remain isolated.
Cover Image: Jida Li on Unsplash