For much of the pandemic, China saw its zero-covid strategy as proof of its political system’s superiority in dealing with the virus. But Shanghai’s struggles show Beijing is now clinging to a strategy whose costs and dangers are mounting.
In previous waves of covid, the strategy of mass testing and quarantining positive cases, along with partial lockdowns and border measures, was able to outpace the spread of the virus. But the highly transmissible nature of the omicron variant and its subtypes means it’s moving faster than China’s tried-and-tested methods to control it. Despite the financial hub’s two-stage lockdown—now extended indefinitely—China’s covid cases shot up from double digits in early March to over 20,000 on Tuesday (April 5).
Nevertheless, the consensus seems to be that China won’t relax its prevention tactics until 2023, because of a key political event that will take place in October or November. At this year’s Communist Party Congress, which takes place every five years, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to announce his third term. Until it’s over, the whole system is even more geared than usual to maintaining stability and to avoiding a potential embarrassment to the party.
“I don’t think they are going to abandon it before the party congress because of the political risks of having the hospital system overrun or severely compromised,” independent economist George Magnus, a former chief economist at Swiss bank UBS, told Quartz. “…My hunch is the politics will demand mostly pretty stern commitment to zero-covid with flexibility where possible in terms of economic impact.”
Zero-covid isn’t working in Shanghai
Over the weekend, photos of dozens of infants in cradles without their parents in a Shanghai clinic sparked anger on Chinese social media, where users call the government’s behavior “inhumane.” Parents said they were denied the right to accompany their children who had tested positive due to government rules, according to China’s Caixin publication. After the public backlash against the separation of children and their guardians, Shanghai’s authorities tweaked the policy this week to allow a small number of parents with negative results to live with the kids in a quarantine hospital.
With many essential workers also under lockdown, people stuck at home have reported groceries are running low. And as in previous lockdowns, some people have failed to get life-saving medical care, such as a nurse who died from asthma. While Shanghai’s broader lockdown only came in last week, earlier spot lockdowns, or the so-called “closed-off” management style (link in Chinese), mean some people have been under movement restrictions for two weeks.
“Everyone is fed up with the lockdown, there is nothing to do other than eat, work, sleep, and post ‘fuck the government’ online,” said a person who has been under lockdown since mid-March.
Despite the painful measures, Shanghai reported 40,000 covid cases in March in total, making it the new epicenter of the virus in the country. It recorded more than 17,000 new cases on Tuesday, up from around 13,000 a day earlier. It’s unclear when new cases are expected to peak.
The economic cost of China’s lockdowns
In March, China’s manufacturing activity slumped to a two-year low due to covid disruptions, as well as canceled export orders in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a monthly index by Caixin/Markit. One tally put the lost productivity from China’s patchwork of covid lockdowns at nearly $50 billion a month, using reductions in trucking traffic to estimate the losses. Authorities have tried to ease the impact by allowing ports, factories, and some offices to have their workers live at work sites.
Strict border rules, including lengthy quarantines, have also halted China’s aviation and tourism industries, and been a blow to countries that depended on Chinese tourists before the pandemic. And while China maintains port operations are continuing as normal despite the lockdown, a supply chain tracking firm says ocean shipment volumes reduced.
All of this—along with uncertainty from Russia’s war in Ukraine—means China will face pressure meeting its economic growth target of 5.5% for 2022. French investment bank Natixis in March predicted that the sharp reduction in mobility in China could shave off 1.8 percentage points from its first-quarter GDP, due later this month.
How and when China can exit zero-covid
Many had viewed the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which began in early February, as a possible turning point for China’s covid policy. In late February, Zeng Guang, the former chief scientist of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that “dynamic clearance” of covid will not remain unchanged forever, sparking hope that China would soon soften its stance. Around the same time, China’s vice premier Li Keqiang and the president Xi Jinping vowed to minimize the economic impact of the policy.
But last week, an editorial from state news agency Xinhua reiterated Xi’s mandate to stick to “dynamic zero covid,” as the strategy began to be referred to late last year, urging citizens to overcome their “weariness” toward covid prevention measures. Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese CDC, also said that the country must stick to the approach because the more transmissible BA.2 sub-variant of omicron can “still cause severe peril.” Over the weekend, Chinese vice premier Sun Chunlan, who is in charge of the country’s covid response, urged Shanghai to “make resolute and swift” moves to curb the outbreak, while stressing “unswerving adherence” to dynamic zero-covid policy, crushing any remaining doubt about China’s stance on the issue.
A major concern is that China must not repeat the fate of Hong Kong, where cases and deaths have soared since January due to low vaccination rates of the elderly. The mainland shares these risk factors. Immunity from the outbreak in 2020 would have waned by now, and only half of the Chinese population aged 80 or have received two shots in China, compared to around 88% for the whole population.
“Hong Kong has set a good example of what not to do,” Gary Ng, Asia-Pacific economist at Natixis, told Quartz. “…the most likely scenario is China will seek to identify as many infections as possible, buying time to ensure enough medical capacity and boost the vaccination rate.”
In place of covid-zero, “there is a viable, more effective alternative approach available, which cannot prevent what’s inevitable—the rise of cases—but could avoid the worst scenario,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. A “mitigation-based approach” would prioritize the protection of the elderly by making sure they get three covid vaccine doses—or have access to free anti-covid pills, Huang said (though China’s vaccines are less effective than mRNA vaccines, three doses can significantly reduce severe illness). Meanwhile, hospitals should no longer treat mild covid cases, and authorities also need to educate the public so they don’t panic and flood hospitals even with mild symptoms.
“This is a much more cost-effective approach,” said Huang.
Ng, meanwhile, points at the Civil Aviation Administration of China’s new five-year development plan issued in January, in which the organization described 2023-2025 as a growth period for domestic and international travels, offering a potential clue to China’s timeline. “Given the current situation, the government will probably keep on-and-off restrictions for the rest of 2022, and more significant changes may only come in 2023,” he said.