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Beijing’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy: a dangerous dead end?

The situation is potentially disastrous – particularly with the lunar New Year celebrations next month

China’s “zero-Covid” policy is taking an “immense” toll on its population, said Jessie Yeung on CNN (Atlanta) – nowhere more so than in Xian. The city of 13 million people in central China has been under strict lockdown since 23 December, as it tries to contain the country’s worst Covid outbreak since the pandemic began in Wuhan.

In recent weeks, social media has been filled with horror stories from Xian, which has recorded around 2,000 cases since 9 December. Residents say they cannot access “food, basic supplies, even medical care”. In one case, a pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage after being turned away from hospital for not having an up-to-date negative test.

Another woman said her father died after emergency surgery for a heart attack was delayed because he lived in a “medium-risk” area of the city. Many have been reduced to bartering as they struggle to get hold of food distributed by the government. The situation has led to an unusual outpouring of anger and frustration online. “Covid-19 might not kill you,” read one typical post, “but bureaucrats can.”

Beijing’s Covid policy – officially dubbed “dynamic zero” – has been a centrepiece of its pandemic response, said Jing Xuan in Japan Today (Tokyo). Officials have ruthlessly clamped down on outbreaks, instigating strict mass-testing regimes wherever new cases emerge, and enforcing tight border controls. That has prevented its healthcare system – which has limited intensive care bed capacity compared to those of richer nations – from being overrun.

It has been highly effective at protecting our 1.4 billion citizens, said China’s state-owned Global Times (Beijing). More than 30 local outbreaks have been controlled. And China’s total reported death toll of 5,699 is minuscule when compared to those of nations like the US, where over 800,000 have died from Covid.

The problem, said George Calhoun in Forbes (Jersey City), is that China’s claims about its death rate just aren’t credible. Other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have adopted similarly draconian tactics to contain the virus. Yet even the population-adjusted mortality rates in those nations are between 30 and 50 times higher than China claims its own is.

The important question now is what China does next, said Josephine Ma in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong). Most countries have ditched zero-Covid policies and are relying on jabs and infection-acquired immunity to protect people. But China’s strict approach to past outbreaks means its population has little natural immunity, and its Sinovac jab seems to offer weaker protection against Omicron than mRNA jabs such as Pfizer’s, leaving its people exposed to the highly transmissible new variant.

The situation is potentially disastrous – particularly as the lunar New Year celebrations will bring mass travel next month, when the nation is also hosting the Winter Olympics. China needs an “exit strategy” from zero-Covid, said Katrin Büchenbacher in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Zürich). It only really has two choices: it can approve a foreign mRNA jab (or swiftly develop one of its own) and hope a booster campaign confers sufficient immunity; or it can continue with the “intolerable” lockdowns.

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