As costs mount, how long can China stick with ‘zero COVID’?

Omicron has exposed the growing toll of Beijing’s reliance on draconian measures like lockdowns and border closures.

Health officials in hazmat suits in Xian, China
The Omicron variant has tested China's strict "zero COVID" strategy [File: China Daily via Reuters]

Hong Kong, China – On January 23, 2020, China gave birth to “zero COVID”.

Facing the threat of a mysterious virus, authorities in Wuhan imposed the world’s first lockdown on its 11 million residents, marking the beginning of a zero-tolerance policy that would define China’s pandemic response.

Two years later, the lightning spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant and rising costs of keeping it under control are raising questions about the sustainability of China’s approach. But even as the variant pushes other parts of the world towards living with the virus, China is likely to stick to its elimination strategy despite the economic and social toll of harsher and more frequent lockdowns along with sealed borders, according to analysts.

“Omicron poses a bigger threat to the zero-Covid policy than the previous variants did,” Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera, citing the transmissibility of the coronavirus strain, which is believed to spread two to three times as easily as the Delta variant.

“Given the tools available in the mainland, I think they will be able to control even Omicron outbreaks. But it will take a lot of resources and cause a lot of disruptions in the process.”

Chinese authorities are racing to stamp out flare-ups in cases ahead of the Winter Olympic Games, set to open on February 4 in Beijing. On Monday, authorities reported 223 infections nationwide, the highest tally rise in nearly two years, although cases have dropped into the double digits in recent days.

China Wuhan
The Chinese city of Wuhan became the first place in the world to go into lockdown on January 23, 2020 [File: Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE]

After a Beijing office worker became the first person in the capital to test positive for Omicron on Sunday, local authorities immediately sealed off her residential compound and office building, locking white-collar workers inside.

Blaming the virus on a contaminated letter from Canada, Chinese authorities also urged residents to minimise purchases of overseas goods and handle international mail with caution, despite overseas experts pouring doubt on the likelihood of such transmission.

Before the emergence of Omicron, authorities have in recent weeks brought an outbreak of the Delta variant under control in Xi’an, Shanxi province, with a strict lockdown that was blamed for causing food shortages and leading at least two pregnant women to miscarry.

But as one outbreak is brought under control, new ones have sprouted across the country.

In the latest wave, 69 family clusters were found in Tianjin, which shares a border with Beijing. The city tested its entire population of 14 million in two days, which state tabloid Global Times touted as evidence of China’s “miracle of speed” in containing the virus.

Across the border, Hong Kong has ramped up social distancing measures to contain a growing Omicron cluster, suspending face-to-face tuition at schools, closing bars and nightclubs, and imposing a 6pm curfew on dining at restaurants.

This week, authorities ordered the mass culling of 2,000 hamsters and small animals, citing the risk of animal-to-human transmission — for which there is no direct evidence – after detecting the first case of the Delta variant in three months in a saleswoman at a pet shop.

Jin Dong-Yan, a virologist with the University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera it was “prudent” to use more stringent controls “to win more time, so we can understand Omicron better”.

Jin, however, said there was no reason to panic, pointing to the variant’s shorter shedding window as well as the milder symptoms and lower death rate in the United States and Europe.

Although China’s draconian measures have been credited with keeping deaths low, Jin questioned their necessity from a public health standpoint as the virus evolves.

“For them, it’s a matter of national honour 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.”

Public support

Beijing is also likely concerned about the efficacy of its vaccine against the new variant, as lab-based results have shown Sinovac not to produce enough antibodies to protect against Omicron. That raises the possibility that a surge in cases could overwhelm the public health system, despite high vaccination coverage.

But as much of the rest of the world moves on, China is still stuck in the last era, said Jin.

“My advice would be that they should adjust gradually and recognise the reality around the world on COVID-19,” he said. “They should cease the policy step by step.”

Unlike in Western countries, where opposition to lockdowns and vaccine mandates is on the rise, China has not experienced a significant public backlash to harsh pandemic measures.

Despite its costs, the zero-COVID strategy appears to enjoy broad public support in the population, according to Christian Göbel, a professor of China Studies at the University of Vienna.

“I also don’t think that people are against lockdowns per se because they take COVID very seriously,” Göbel told Al Jazeera.

“There is the culture that individual liberties can be sacrificed to a large extent for the collective good,” Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, told Al Jazeera. “And a health crisis is pretty much seen as a justifiable cause for the sacrifice of individual liberties.”

Chinese president Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping’s government has touted the superiority of China’s handling of the pandemic [File: Andy Wong/AP]

China – which had a COVID-19 death toll of just 4,636 as of Friday – has also touted its control over the pandemic as evidence of the superiority of its governance model, giving it less flexibility to shift gears, Ong said.

Any substantial change in the policy will likely be driven by the material economic costs of being cut off from the rest of the world, she said.

Indeed, economists have warned that the economic costs are mounting, especially as the Chinese property market and domestic consumption sag.

“It is necessary to take a forward-looking approach,” Chen Xingdong, chief China economist at BNP Paribas, said in a webinar earlier this month, the South China Morning Post reported. “China cannot simply continue with whatever the policy is being implemented.”

“It seems the central government has realised the cost of the zero-Covid policy – it is definitely very dear and it’s hard to continue,” Chen said, pointing to the lockdown implemented in Xian.

‘Impossible to change course’

Earlier this month, US-based consultancy Eurasia Group cited China’s zero-tolerance policy as the most significant political risk of the coming year, citing the stress it will place on global supply chains and emerging markets.

Severe lockdowns to control future outbreaks will “in turn lead to greater economic disruptions, more state intervention, and a more dissatisfied population at odds with the triumphalist ‘China defeated Covid’ mantra of the state-run media,” the consultancy wrote in a report published on January 3.

“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 trimmed its forecast for China’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth to 5.1 percent in 2022, down from 5.4 percent. That would be the slowest growth since the 1990s and down sharply from last year’s 8.1 percent expansion.

Many analysts believe the policy will almost certainly stay 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 path ahead is less clear.

“The ideal scenario for mainland China is that the virus continues to evolve and in a year, or some near time, the variants circulating are even milder and don’t pose a public health threat particularly with higher vaccine coverage,” said Cowling.

“And China could relax its covid policies without having any kind of large exit waves or any major public health impact.”

For Beijing, which has gone to such extraordinary lengths to control the virus, when or whether such a scenario might occur is entirely out of its control.

Source: Al Jazeera