As the highly transmissible Delta variant continues to spread to at least 17 provinces, China now faces a new dilemma: Is its once successful “zero tolerance” approach to containing the spread of the virus over, and what what comes next?
Unlike Britain and Singapore, where authorities have explicitly encouraged people to “learn to live with the virus,” China has yet to officially change its messages.
But experts are wondering what the next step in the country’s strategy is, now that it’s clear the virus isn’t going away anytime soon. Last week, Chinese virologist Zhang Wenhong – widely known as Chinese Dr Fauci – wrote in an essay about the need for the “wisdom” of long-term coexistence with the virus.
Zhang said the recent outbreak in east China’s Nanjing City should serve as “food for thought for the future of our pandemic response.” “The data tells us that even if each of us were to be vaccinated in the future, Covid-19 would still be endemic, but at a lower level with a lower death rate. After the liberalization of vaccines, there will still be infections in the future … “he wrote.
Less than a week after the publication of Zhang’s opinion piece, the Delta variant has now spread to more than half of China’s 31 provinces, shutting down transport routes. China reported 96 new cases on Wednesday – 71 of them have been transmitted locally. Residential areas, including those housing more than 10,000 people in the capital Beijing, have been cordoned off for mass testing. In Wuhan, where the virus was first reported at the end of 2019, authorities have started testing the 11 million residents.
The debate over the merits of China’s “zero tolerance” strategy has actually been around for some time. Last year, Zhejiang University professor Wang Liming urged the government to adjust wartime thinking that “elimination” is the red line.
“We have to accept the fact that Covid is going to be around for a long time and that it will coexist with humans, [therefore we need to] let go of unrealistic KPIs such as short-term elimination, ”Wang wrote.
Over the past 12 months, as countries around the world struggled to control the spread of the virus, China’s approach has enabled its citizens to live largely virus-free lives. There have been sporadic cases in parts of the country, but they were quickly contained by the government.
China’s success – including its economic growth when most countries have seen steep declines – has also fueled the narrative that its system is more superior to its Western counterparts. “Judging by the way this pandemic is being handled by different directorates and [political] systems around the world, [we can] see clearly who did better, ”President Xi Jinping said at a meeting at the party’s central school earlier this year.
In practice, this strategy is closely linked to the performance of local elected officials. On Saturday, Fu Guirong, director of the local health commission in Zhengzhou, central Henan Province, was fired after the city reported a few positive cases. Last year, Fu received a national award for his contribution to the country’s anti-virus effort.
Beijing’s thought, experts said, was to keep new infections as low as possible while rolling out its nationwide mass vaccination program, which Reuters said should have covered around 61.1% of population.
“[But] China’s “zero tolerance” policy is seeing its diminishing returns, and the cost of implementing it is rising, “said Huang Yanzhong, a prominent Chinese public health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. York.
“You can maintain this policy for a year, but since the virus will persist for a long time, can you do it for more than two years? Three years? Or four years? And at what cost? ” Huang questioned.
Part of the problem, Huang said, is also linked to China’s homemade vaccines. “The effectiveness of Chinese vaccines is still uncertain given the data we’ve seen so far. And on top of that, the virus continues to mutate into new variants from elsewhere, ”he added.
But despite the apparent flaws in China’s current strategy, others argue that it’s unrealistic to see Beijing officially changing course overnight. “China is too big for a quick turn,” said Jin Dong-Yan, a professor in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. “It takes time to educate political leaders and any change must be gradual and step by step. “
Health blogger A’bao wrote in his article: “Many people express their opinion that we are paying too high a price with a ‘zero tolerance policy’ and we should give it up and learn to coexist with it. I think the answer is no. We humans will coexist with Covid in the long run for sure… But not all countries have the courage, determination, execution and spirit of sacrifice that China has… Although China has paid a high price for a “zero tolerance policy”, it has also minimized the influence of the Covid on our lives … “
Contrary to the alarm shared by many scientists, Jin believes that at present, the spread of the Delta variant in China is “very limited” and “should be under control soon.” Yet Beijing’s mentality has implications for a much larger question: Even if the authorities contained the current situation, when will China reopen its borders?
“It may take them forever to reopen the border. They don’t trust themselves and they don’t trust others. They know their vaccines don’t do a good job of preventing infection, ”Jin said. “They should have opened the border with Hong Kong [a long time ago] … However, they did nothing even when we had no cases for 50 days. “