In many countries, widespread outbreaks linked to the delta variant foiled covid-zero adherence. But China appears determined to stick with the policy of keeping cases as low as possible despite a surge in infections this month driven by an omicron variant.
On March 14, it registered 5,000 new infections, and this week saw its first covid deaths in more than a year. The government put “China’s Silicon Valley” Shenzhen under a week-long lockdown after the city saw 75 new cases (link in Chinese) on March 13. Northeastern Jilin province, the epicenter of the new outbreak, has also placed new restrictions on millions of residents. In Hong Kong (shown above), which has also followed the covid-zero approach Beijing adopted early in the pandemic, cases and deaths have soared since January due to omicron.
China’s stringent covid strategy has largely been successful, with the country reporting fewer than 5,000 deaths for the pandemic (excluding Hong Kong), while nearly 1 million died in the US. But the policy is also facing growing frustration and fatigue from some Chinese citizens, who feel the sacrifice of their privacy and endurance of snap lockdowns is yielding fewer gains at this stage of the pandemic.
“Pandemic prevention enthusiast”
While it’s still easy to find praise for China’s approach online, more people are questioning the necessity of adhering to it quite so zealously as the country still is. Some internet users have coined the term “pandemic prevention enthusiast” for people who are seen as expressing an irrational level of support for covid zero, perhaps in part because economic privilege protects them from the most severe consequences of the policy faced by daily wage workers. The term refers to those who don’t have to worry about their livelihood and who tend to analyze things from a birds-eye perspective and avoiding discussing the science behind decisions, wrote a Chinese columnist who comments on medical issues.
“The emergence of this term is a reminder that people’s attitude towards prevention of covid is quietly changing…[They wonder] when can the repeated torment end,” wrote the columnist.
On China’s Quora-like Zhihu, a post asking for people’s thoughts on the term has received over 2.6 million views. One of the top answers under the post said civil servants are an example of this type of covid fundamentalist, as their earnings aren’t affected by policies that restrict movement or force people to stay home. Yet some answers pointed out that local officials are often the first to be fired after an outbreak so the government can signal it’s taking the situation seriously, incentivizing local authorities to react aggressively over a small number of cases, including locking down entire cities or residential areas. Commenters called for an end to such firings of local officials and hospital directors when new cases emerge.
This approach is “hurting ordinary citizens who earn money with their blood and grassroots government workers who conduct the virus prevention measures,” wrote the author of the answer, who is verified by the platform as a doctor of engineering from China’s top think tank the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The fact that such complaints about the government’s strategy can be found on popular platforms like Zhihu could suggest Beijing knows that the policy eventually has to change, and so is allowing some discussion of it could prepare for the future shift, assistant professor of journalism Fang Kecheng told Quartz. That’s a stark contrast to mere months ago when a Chinese expert’s mention of the need for China to find a path to living with covid led to a backlash from former health officials and internet users.
“The posts show people’s fatigue and frustration, especially due to the economic toll on small business,” said Fang, who is at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
China needs a path to exit covid-zero policy
Supporters of covid zero, however, point to China’s relatively low vaccination rate among those aged over 80 as reason to continue the policy, particularly in light of events in Hong Kong, where low vaccination rates among the elderly have led to thousands of deaths in March alone.
In the mainland, only around half of those over 80 have received two vaccine doses, while just 20% have had a booster third shot, lagging behind the around 85% vaccination rate for the whole Chinese population. In addition, the country only uses vaccines produced by Chinese companies Sinovac and Sinopharm, which have been found to be less effective against omicron compared to mRNA vaccines based on preliminary research.
Although so far there are few signs that Beijing will reverse the policy completely, the country has moved to fine-tune some measures, such as allowing mild cases to recover at home rather than mandatorily going to a hospital. And more significant changes may be coming.
Earlier this month a top Chinese health official said in an internet post that China would release its roadmap for coexisting with covid “in the near future.” The country’s vice premier Li Keqiang also this month said that the country will stick to the rules but they could be “refined,” while president Xi Jinping last week vowed to reduce the economic impact of covid prevention measures.