Hong Kong, China – On January 23, 2020, China gave birth to “zero COVID”.
Faced with the threat of a mysterious virus, Wuhan authorities have imposed the world’s first blockade of its 11 million people, marking the beginning of a zero-tolerance policy that will determine China’s response to the pandemic.
Two years later, the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant and the rising cost of keeping it under control raise questions about the sustainability of China’s approach. But even as the option pushes other parts of the world to live with the virus, China is likely to stick to its elimination strategy despite the economic and social consequences of harsher and more frequent blockades along with sealed borders, analysts say.
“Omicron poses a greater threat to zero Covid policy than previous options,” Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera, citing the portability of the coronavirus strain, which is thought to spread two to three times easier than the Delta option.
“Given the tools available on the mainland, I think they will be able to control even Omicron outbreaks. But it will take a lot of resources and disrupt the process. “
Chinese authorities are vying to eliminate outbreaks in cases ahead of the Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to open on February 4 in Beijing. Authorities reported 223 infections across the country on Monday, the highest in nearly two years, although the number has dropped to double digits in recent days.
After an office worker in Beijing became the first person in the capital to test positive for Omicron on Sunday, local authorities immediately sealed her apartment complex and office building, locking workers inside.
Accusing the virus of an infected letter from Canada, Chinese authorities also called on residents to minimize purchases of foreign goods and to handle international mail with caution, although foreign experts have questioned the likelihood of such a transmission.
Prior to the advent of Omicron, authorities in recent weeks controlled an outbreak of the Delta variant in Xi’an, Shanxi Province, with a severe blockade that has been blamed for food shortages and miscarriages of at least two pregnant women.
But as one outbreak has been contained, new ones have sprung up across the country.
In the latest wave, 69 family clusters were found in Tianjin, which borders Beijing. The city is testing its entire population of 14 million in two days, which the state tabloid Global Times cited as evidence of China’s “miracle of speed” in controlling the virus.
Across the border, Hong Kong has stepped up social distancing measures to curb the growing Omicron cluster by suspending face-to-face training in schools, closing bars and nightclubs, and imposing curfews at 6 p.m.
Authorities ordered the mass killing of 2,000 hamsters and small animals this week, citing the risk of animal-to-human transmission – for which there is no direct evidence – after finding the first case of a three-month-old Delta in a pet store.
Jin Dong-yang, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera that it was “reasonable” to use tighter controls, “to gain more time so we can better understand Omicron.”
However, Jin said there was no reason to panic, citing the shorter release window, as well as milder symptoms and lower mortality in the United States and Europe.
Although China’s draconian measures are credited with keeping deaths low, Jin has questioned their need for public health as the virus develops.
“For them, it’s a matter of national honor and they believe they have the best strategy in the world,” he said. “If we can control the Wuhan pandemic, we can do the same elsewhere.
Beijing is also likely to be concerned about the effectiveness of its vaccine against the new variant, as laboratory results show that Sinovac does not produce enough antibodies to protect against Omicron. This increases the possibility of an increase in the number of cases of overburdening the public health system, despite the high range of vaccinations.
But as much of the rest of the world moves forward, China is still stuck in the last era, Jin said.
“My advice would be that they should adapt gradually and recognize the world reality of COVID-19,” he said. “They have to end the policy step by step.
Unlike Western countries, where opposition to the blockade and vaccine mandates is growing, China has not experienced a significant public response to harsh pandemic measures.
Despite its costs, the zero-COVID strategy appears to enjoy widespread public support, according to Christian Goebel, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Vienna.
“I also don’t think people are against blocking per se because they take COVID very seriously,” Goebel told Al Jazeera.
“There is a culture that individual freedoms can be sacrificed largely for the collective good,” Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, told Al Jazeera. “And the health crisis is largely seen as a justifiable reason for sacrificing individual freedoms.
China – which had just 4,636 deaths from COVID-19 as of Friday – also cites pandemic control as proof of the superiority of its governance model, which gives it less flexibility in shifting gears, Ong said.
Any significant change in policy is likely to be caused by the material economic costs of breaking away from the rest of the world, she said.
In fact, economists warn that economic costs are rising, especially as China’s real estate market and domestic consumption decline.
“A forward-looking approach is needed,” Chen Sindong, chief Chinese economist at BNP Paribas, told a webinar earlier this month, the South China Morning Post reported. “China cannot simply pursue any policy.
“The central government seems to have realized the cost of zero Covid policy – it is definitely very expensive and difficult to continue,” Chen said, citing the blockade in Xi’an.
“Impossible to change course”
Earlier this month, US-based consulting firm Eurasia Group cited China’s zero-tolerance policy as the most significant political risk for next year, citing the stress it will put on global supply chains and emerging markets.
“Severe blockades to control future outbreaks will in turn lead to greater economic disruption, more government intervention and a more disgruntled population, contrary to the triumphant mantra ‘China has defeated Covid’ in the state media,” the consulting firm said in a report. published on January 3.
“Zero Covid’s initial success and Si’s personal commitment to it made it impossible to change course,” the report added.
In December, the World Bank lowered its forecast for China’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth to 5.1% in 2022, down 5.4%. This will be the slowest growth since the 1990s and a sharp drop from last year’s increase of 8.1 percent.
Many analysts believe the policy will almost certainly remain in place until at least the party’s congress scheduled for the second half of 2022, where President Xi Jinping is expected to secure an unprecedented third term.
Then the way forward is less clear.
“The ideal scenario for mainland China is that the virus continues to develop and after a year or so, the circulating options are even milder and do not pose a threat to public health, especially with more vaccine coverage,” Cowling said.
“And China could ease its covid policies without any major waves of exit or any major impact on public health.
For Beijing, which has made such an extraordinary effort to control the virus, when or if such a scenario could occur is completely beyond its control.