Hong Kong, China – On January 23, 2020, China gave birth to “zero COVID”.
With the threat of a mysterious virus, authorities in Wuhan imposes the world’s first lock on its 11 million inhabitants, which is the beginning of a zero-tolerance policy that will define China’s pandemic response.
Two years later, the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant and rising costs to keep it under control raised questions about the sustainability of China’s approach. But even if the variant drives other parts of the world to live with the virus, China is likely to stick to its elimination strategy despite the economic and social toll of stricter and more frequent restrictions along with sealed borders, according to analysts.
“Omicron poses a greater threat to the zero-covid policy than the previous variants did,” Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera, referring to the portability of the coronavirus strain, which is probably two to three times as easy as the Delta variant.
“Given the tools available on the continent, I think they will even be able to control Omicron outbreaks. But it will require a lot of resources and cause a lot of disruptions in the process. “
Chinese authorities are rushing to eradicate flare-ups in matters ahead of the Winter Olympics, which will begin in Beijing on February 4. Authorities on Monday reported 223 infections nationwide, the highest rise in nearly two years, although cases have dropped to double digits in recent days.
Na a Beijing office worker on Sunday became the first person in the capital to test positive for Omicron, local authorities immediately shut down her residential complex and office building and locked white-collar workers inside.
Chinese authorities, blaming the virus on an infected letter from Canada, have also urged residents to reduce purchases of overseas goods and handle international mail carefully, despite overseas experts doubting the likelihood of such a transfer.
Prior to the rise of Omicron, authorities in recent weeks brought under control an outbreak of the Delta variant in Xi’an, Shanxi Province, with a severe restriction blaming food shortages and leading to at least two pregnant women have given birth.
But as one outbreak is brought under control, new ones have sprung up across the country.
In the latest spate, 69 family groups were found in Tianjin, which shares a border with Beijing. The city tested its entire population of 14 million in two days, which the state-sponsored newspaper Global Times presented as evidence of China’s “miracle of speed” by containing the virus.
Across the border, Hong Kong has sharpened social distancing measures to include a growing Omicron grouping, suspend face-to-face teaching at schools, close bars and nightclubs, and impose a 6pm curfew rule for eat at restaurants.
This week, authorities ordered the mass slaughter of 2,000 hamsters and small animals, referring to the risk of animal-to-human transmission – for which there is no direct evidence – after the first case of the Delta variant was detected in three months by a saleswoman at a pet store.
Jin Dong-Yan, a virologist from the University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera it was “cautious” to use stricter controls “to gain more time so that we can better understand Omicron”.
However, Jin said there was no reason to panic, pointing to the variant’s shorter expiration window as well as the milder symptoms and lower mortality rate in the United States and Europe.
Although China’s draconian measures have been credited for keeping deaths low, Jin has questioned their necessity from a public health point of view as the virus develops.
“For them, it is a matter of national honor and they believe they have the best strategy in the world,” he said. “If we can control the pandemic in Wuhan, 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-based results have shown that Sinovac does not produce enough antibodies to protect against Omicron. This creates the possibility that an increase in cases could overwhelm the public health system, despite high vaccination coverage.
But as many of the rest of the world move on, China is still stuck in the last era, Jin said.
“My advice would be that they should gradually adapt and acknowledge the reality around the world about COVID-19,” he said. “They have to stop the policy step by step.”
Unlike in Western countries, where opposition to restrictions and vaccine mandates is increasing, China has not experienced a significant public backlash against harsh pandemic measures.
Despite its cost, the zero-COVID strategy appears to enjoy broad public support among the population, according to Christian Göbel, a professor of China studies at the University of Vienna.
“I also do not think that people per se are against restrictions because they take COVID very seriously,” Göbel told Al Jazeera.
“There is a culture that individual freedoms can be sacrificed to a great extent for the collective interest,” Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, told Al Jazeera. “And a health crisis is reasonably seen as a just cause for sacrificing individual freedoms.”
China – which had a COVID-19 death toll of just 4,636 as of Friday – also claimed control of the pandemic as proof of the superiority of its management model, giving it less flexibility to shift gears, Ong said.
Any significant change in policy is likely to be driven by the significant economic cost of being cut off from the rest of the world, she said.
Indeed, economists have warned that economic costs are rising, especially as the Chinese real estate market and domestic consumption decline.
“It is necessary to take a forward-looking approach,” Chen Xingdong, China’s chief economist at BNP Paribas, said in a webinar earlier this month, the South China Morning Post reported. “China can not simply continue with whatever policy is implemented.”
“It seems that the central government has realized the cost of the zero-covid policy – it is certainly very expensive and it is difficult to continue,” Chen said, pointing to the restriction implemented in Xian.
‘Impossible to change course’
Earlier this month, US consulting firm Eurasia Group cited China’s zero tolerance policy as the key political risk of the coming year, citing tensions it will place on global supply chains and emerging markets.
Serious restrictions on controlling future outbreaks will “in turn lead to greater economic disruption, more state intervention and a more dissatisfied population that is in conflict with the triumphant ‘China defeats Covid’ mantra of the state-run media,” the consultation said in a statement. wrote a report. published on January 3rd.
“The initial success of Zero Covid and Xi’s personal attachment to it makes it impossible to change course,” the report added.
In December, the World Bank reduced its forecast for China’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth to 5.1 percent in 2022, from 5.4 percent. This would be the slowest growth since the 1990s and sharply lower than last year’s expansion of 8.1 percent.
Many analysts believe the policy will almost certainly remain in place at least until after the Party Congress, set for the latter half of 2022, where President Xi Jinping is expected to secure an unprecedented third term.
After that, the way forward is less clear.
“The ideal scenario for mainland China is that the virus continues to develop and in a year, or in the near future, the variants that circulate are even lighter and do not pose a threat to public health, especially with higher vaccine coverage. , “Cowling said.
“And China can relax its covid policy without having any kind of big exit waves or any big impact on public health.”
For Beijing, which has made such an extraordinary effort to control the virus, when and if such a scenario can occur is completely out of its control.