As the highly communicable delta variant continues to spread through at least 17 provinces, China faces a new dilemma: Has its once successful “zero tolerance” approach to contain the spread of the virus ended and what’s next? after?
Unlike Britain and Singapore, where officials have explicitly encouraged people to “learn to live with the virus,” China has yet to officially change its message.
But experts wonder what’s next for the country’s strategy, now that it’s clear the virus won’t go away anytime soon. Last week, Chinese virologist Zhang Wenhong – widely known as “Dr. Fauci of China” – wrote in an essay about the need for the “wisdom” of long-term coexistence with the virus.
Zhang said the recent outbreak in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing should serve as “food for thought for the future of our response to the pandemic.” “The data tells us that even if each of us were vaccinated in the future, Covid-19 would still be endemic, but at a lower level with a lower mortality 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 op-ed, the Delta variant has now spread to more than half of China’s 31 provinces, shutting down transportation routes. On Wednesday, China reported 96 new cases, 71 of them transmitted locally. Residential areas, including those housing more than 10,000 people in the capital Beijing, have been closed for mass testing. In Wuhan, where the virus was first reported in late 2019, authorities began testing all 11 million residents.
In fact, the debate over the merit of China’s zero tolerance strategy has been around for some time. Last year, Wang Liming, a professor at Zhejiang University, urged the government to adjust wartime thinking about “elimination” as the red line.
“We need to accept the fact that Covid will exist for a long time and that it will coexist with humans, [therefore we need to] abandon unrealistic KPIs [key performance indicators] as short-term elimination ” Wang wrote.
In the past 12 months, as countries around the world struggled to control the spread of the virus, China’s approach led its citizens to live largely virus-free lives. There were sporadic cases in some parts of the country, but the government quickly contained them.
China’s success, including its economic growth, as most nations posted sharp declines, also fueled the narrative that its system is more superior to its counterparts in the West. “Judging by the way the different leaders and leaders are handling this pandemic [political] systems around the world, [we can] Let’s see clearly who has done 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 officials. On Saturday, Fu Guirong, director of the local health commission in Zhengzhou, central Henan province, was fired after the city reported some positive cases. Last year, Fu received a national award for his contribution to the country’s anti-virus effort.
Beijing’s thinking, according to experts, was to keep new infections as low as possible while implementing its mass vaccination program nationwide, which Reuters calculates it should have covered about 61.1% of the population.
However, “China’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy is experiencing diminishing returns, and the cost of implementing it is increasing,” said Huang Yanzhong, a leading Chinese public health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. .
“You can keep this policy for a year, but since the virus is going to last a long time, can you do it for more than two years? Three years? Or four years? And at what cost? Huang asked.
Part of the problem, according to Huang, also has to do with China’s homemade vaccines. “The efficacy of Chinese vaccines is still uncertain given the data we have seen so far. And on top of that, the virus continues to mutate into new variants from elsewhere, “he added.
But despite the apparent shortcomings of China’s current strategy, others argue that it is unrealistic for Beijing to officially change course overnight. “China is too big for a quick turn,” said Jin Dong-Yan, a professor at 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: “Many people are expressing the opinion that we are paying too high a price with a ‘zero tolerance policy’ and we should give it up and learn to live with it. I think the answer is no. Humans will coexist with Covid in the long term for sure … But not all countries have the courage, determination, execution and spirit of sacrifice that China has … Although China paid a high price for a ‘policy of zero tolerance ‘, also downplayed Covid’s influence on our lives. “
Contrary to the alarm shared by many scientists, Jin thinks that, at this time, the spread of the Delta variant in China is “very limited” and “should soon be under control.” However, Beijing’s mindset has implications for a much more important question: Even if the authorities contained the current situation, when will China reopen its borders?
“It may take forever to reopen the border. They do not have confidence in themselves and they do not trust others. They know their vaccines are not doing a good job of preventing infections, ”Jin said. “They should have opened the border to Hong Kong [a long time ago] … However, they did nothing even when we had zero cases for 50 days. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism