Why the “zero tolerance” strategy against Covid may backfire for China
TAIPEI, Taiwan.- Paradoxically, the forceful “zero tolerance” strategy that China has employed to keep the number of Covid-19 cases low and protect its economy may make it more difficult for the country to emerge from the pandemic.
Most experts say the coronavirus is not going to go away all over the world and could eventually become, like the flu, a persistent threat -but generally manageable- if enough people become immune through infections and vaccinations.
In countries like Britain and the United States, which have had comparatively light restrictions against the surge of the omicron variant, there is a glimmer of hope that the process may be underway. Cases have spiked in recent weeks, but have since declined in Britain and may have leveled off in the United States, perhaps because the extremely contagious variant is running out of people to infect. Some places are already even talking about easing Covid-19 preventative measures.
On the contrary, China is not experiencing the same dynamic and a litmus test will come in two more weeks, when the nation will be in the international spotlight when the Beijing Winter Olympics begin.
The communist government’s practice during the pandemic of trying to find and isolate all infected people has largely prevented its hospitals from being overwhelmed and have not seen the high levels of deaths that have affected most of the world, but the uncompromising approach of the Chinese government means that most of its inhabitants have never been exposed to the virus and have not developed immunity.
At the same time, the efficacy of the most widely used vaccines in China has been questioned. Recent studies indicate that such inoculations offer significantly less protection against infection by the omicron variant, even after three doses, than people get after receiving booster doses of major Western vaccines. Together, those factors could complicate China’s efforts to overcome the pandemic.
Experts say, if the country of 1.4 billion people relaxes its restrictions, it could face a rise similar to that experienced by Singapore or Australia, despite having a highly vaccinated population.
“It is likely that China’s susceptibility to outbreaks is higher because most people have not been exposed to the virus due to the strict measures that were implemented, so lack hybrid immunity, which is supposed to provide better protection than vaccination alone,” said Dr. Vineeta Bal, an immunologist at the Indian Institute of Scientific Education and Research.
“It’s risky for China to reopen right now, because omicron is spreading globally, and even if the variant doesn’t cause serious illness, it will spread like wildfire,” he added.
Dali Yang, a professor studying Chinese politics at the University of Chicago, commented: “It’s a big challenge for the leaders, especially their rhetoric about saving lives. How will they justify opening up and then having tens of thousands of people die in the process?
Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has cited China’s approach as a “great strategic success” and as evidence of the “significant advantages” of its political system over Western liberal democracies.
China, the world’s most populous nation, was the only major economy to grow in 2020 and accounted for just a fraction of global deaths and infections inflicted by the pandemic. As part of the country’s tough strategy to keep the virus at bay, residents of Chinese cities must show their infection status through a government-supervised app to enter supermarkets, offices or even the capital.
However, with the Olympics just weeks away, omicron is putting this approach to the test. There are outbreaks in the southern province of Guangdong, as well as in Beijing. The organizers of the Olympic Games announced that they will not sell tickets locally and that they will only allow entry to select spectators. They will not allow spectators from abroad.
Authorities have also asked people not to visit their hometowns around the Lunar New Year in early February, a move that will cut spending during China’s biggest family holiday.
The major city of Xi’an in the west and parts of Ningbo, a busy port south of Shanghai, are under lockdown. China is unlikely to relax its policies significantly any time soon. The Communist Party is preparing for a pivotal meeting this fall, at which it is expected Xi is appointed for a third term as party leader. “If the Covid numbers start to skyrocket to high levels, this will reflect negatively on your leadership”, said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese political leadership at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
China relies heavily on its own Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, along with several others made in the country. It has not approved Pfizer’s shot, even though a Chinese company bought distribution rights in 2020. Instead, the focus is on developing China’s own vaccines, which use mRNA technology, like Pfizer’s formulas. and Modern. One of those vaccines is in final trials.
Another option for China may be to follow the evolution of the virus and postpone the opening of its borders until it is even milder, but no one knows when, if ever, that might happen. “What will be the next variant? How serious will it be? You can’t know,” said immunologist Bal.