As Omicron Surges and Economy Victims, China Turns to ‘Zero Covid’
When the coronavirus first spread across China in early 2020, the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, declared a “people’s war” against the pandemic, which would become a no-holds-barred strategy to eliminate infections.
Now, in the pandemic’s third year, and facing the rise of a stealthy and fast-spreading version, Mr. Xi is trying to fix the playbook, ordering officials to quell outbreaks. but also to limit the economic pain involved.
As China grapples with the country’s biggest outbreak since the pandemic began in Wuhan more than two years ago, Beijing says its measures must be more precise. Officials are now promoting policies that may seem either obvious in much of the world, such as allowing the use of testing kits at home, or extreme still, such as allowing people to be sent to centralized isolation facilities rather than hospitals. send in
But in China, where no stone has been left unturned to stamp out the virus, they point to a remarkable change. Last week, for the first time, Mr. Xi urged officials to minimize the impact of the country’s COVID response on people’s livelihoods.
Adjustments are largely out of necessity. So far, the number of cases has remained relatively low, and only two deaths have been reported in the latest wave. But many of the more than 32,000 cases reported in two dozen provinces in recent weeks are of Omicron’s highly transmissible BA.2 subtype.
An outbreak of outbreaks across the country could quickly overwhelm the medical system if everyone who tested positive was sent to a hospital, as was necessary until recently. It can task forces of community workers and neighborhood volunteers to conduct mass PCR tests for millions of people every day and check residents under quarantine. Long, unpredictable lockdowns can wipe out already very slim profits of many factories or lead to layoffs of service workers.
In his remarks to top officials last week, Mr Xi said officials should strive for “maximum impact” with “minimum cost” in controlling the virus, reflecting concerns about the economy’s slowing growth. Yet his order to swiftly contain the outbreaks underscores a broader question of how far his rhetoric will go on controlling costs. On Friday, Chinese health officials insisted to reporters that the policy had not been relaxed in an effort to be more targeted.
Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, said Mr Xi was indicating a “willingness to adapt and reduce disruptions to the economy”, but not that the government was giving up control.
The ruling Communist Party’s zero-tolerance approach creates high costs for officials, Mr. Yang said, pointing to the recent firing of top officials in a district in Jilin city and Changchun city as examples. he said. State media reported that more than two dozen officers had been fired in recent weeks, who were accused of negligence in responding to the outbreaks.
For many people in China, everyday life has increased since the latest wave began. Millions of people are now under some form of lockdown. Factories have stopped work and truck traffic is delayed, disrupting already dysfunctional supply chains. In some areas of the major metropolises of Shenzhen and Shanghai, life has come to a standstill as offices and schools have been closed and residents ordered to stay in their homes.
In Shanghai, officials have avoided enforcing a citywide lockdown, using contact tracing instead to include high-risk neighbourhoods. Still, the restrictions have hit the bottom line for businesses, such as a spicy hot pot restaurant in Shanghai’s upscale Xuhui district.
Restaurant owner Zhang Liang said his profits have dropped by more than 80 percent since the lockdown began. He was worried about his bills.
“We are still open, but no one is coming,” said Mr. Zhang.
The lockdown is taking a toll on residents in other ways. Tang Min, a 37-year-old gas station worker in a town in Jilin province, was among residents who were ordered to stay at home. A few days later, she was running out of prescription drugs to treat her depression.
She called the local government hotline, and neighborhood volunteers eventually brought her more medicines before she ran out.
“When I don’t take medication, I don’t feel like I have much to live for,” Ms Tang said in a telephone interview.
China’s stringent virus controls still appear to be enjoying widespread support, with people hoping to avoid the devastation that COVID has wreaked on hospitals and communities around the world. But in recent weeks, there have been signs that the public’s patience is waning.
When Zhang Wenhong, a leading infectious disease expert in Shanghai, suggested last summer that China should learn to live with the virus, it was attacked online as a puppet of foreigners. Now, people online are debating the question of how long the measure will last. Some even jokingly said that the government should “lie flat”, a reference to a popular term among Chinese millennials that pushes back against social pressures by undermining.
“People are fed up with these extreme anti-Covid measures,” said Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University.
But the outbreak in Hong Kong – where patients are parked outside hospitals on gurneys and body bags are piled up in wards – has shocked many in the mainland. Charts showing the high Covid death rate in Hong Kong, where many older residents are unaffiliated, are ricocheting around Chinese social media.
The toll on older people in Hong Kong has prompted officials in China to double down on efforts to promote vaccination among the country’s vulnerable groups. More than 87 percent of China’s population has been fully vaccinated. But more than half of people age 80 and older have had two shots, and less than 20 percent have received a booster, Zeng Yixin, deputy minister of the National Health Commission, said on Friday.
Officials have announced plans to send vaccination trucks to vaccinate many older Chinese people living in less accessible rural areas. Misinformation about vaccines and a lack of urgency due to relatively few cases has compounded the problem.
For months, Li Man, a 69-year-old housewife in Beijing, stopped getting vaccinated believing she was at low risk of contracting the virus because she didn’t go out often. Finally, at the behest of his daughter, he got jab a few months back. But in a telephone interview, she said she still felt it was unnecessary.
“China’s situation is better than the United States or other Western countries,” Ms. Li said.
Ms. Lee’s confidence points to the higher stakes facing the government as it tries to test its response. Beijing has touted the low number of virus deaths in China as a sign of the superiority of the country’s top-down, centralized system. Failure to stop the latest surge could destroy the legitimacy of the party.
With each new version, it has become more difficult to trace the chain of transmission. Last month, a village near Shenzhen was put under lockdown for nearly three weeks. The community was later evacuated and the lockdown was lifted. But within a few days, the cases started coming to the fore and the village was again locked down.
In allowing the use of at-home testing kits, officials have said residents had a responsibility to report any positive results to their local authorities. Xiao Yahui, an official with China’s National Health Commission, said on Friday that people would be punished if they failed to do so, but did not specify what the consequences might be.
Even if officials are successful in eliminating all infections in the current wave, it will only be a matter of time before the next outbreak, said Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. That’s why, he said, China urgently needs to come up with a road map to learn how to live with the virus.
“It’s the only option,” said Mr. Jin. “It’s almost impossible to get back to zero now.”
Keith Bradsher Contributed to reporting. Lee you Contributed to research.
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