No more zero-covid

China has finally backed down from its zero-covid policy

But a low elderly vaccination rate in China means a rocky path still lies ahead
Protesters in Beijing in November. 
Protesters in Beijing in November. 
Photo: Getty (Getty Images)
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In an apparent surprise concession to protesters, the Chinese government announced a dramatic rollback of covid-19 measures, after three years of adhering to a strict zero-covid policy.

Authorities reportedly will loosen up on mass testing requirements, no longer requiring people to scan a QR code at most public places proving their health status and relaxing testing requirements for domestic travel. People with covid will be allowed to stay home to quarantine instead of going to government facilities.

Lockdowns can still be imposed, but Beijing indicated they would be on a more localized building level—not district or city-wide in most circumstances.

China’s new strategy will likely lead to a surge in covid cases

While the announcement is poised to bolster national morale, healthcare experts warn that China’s path to living with covid will be far from easy. The country will face tremendous strain on its health care system and more lives are bound to be lost.

China’s official death count from the virus since its initial outbreak is 5,235—a fraction of what has been reported in other countries. But China’s domestically developed vaccines are less effective than mRNA vaccines used elsewhere, and there’s concern especially for the elderly. In China, only 69% of those aged 60 and above and just 40% of over-80-year-olds have had booster shots.

An estimate from researchers at Shanghai’s Fudan University published in May projected that more than 1.5 million Chinese could die within six months if covid-19 restrictions were lifted and there was no access to antiviral drugs. China approved the first of such medications in July.

Death rates could fall to around the levels of seasonal flu, however, if nearly all the elderly were vaccinated and antiviral medications were broadly used, the researchers said.

Stepping away from zero covid

The about-face in China’s policy follows a wave of rare protests that swept across multiple major cities and at top universities, a level of discontent not seen since Tiananmen Square in 1984. Fed up protesters who have suffered repeated mass lockdowns defied quarantine rules to gather and chanted “Xi Jinping step down” and “Communist Party step down.”

The mass rallies were triggered by a deadly blaze killed at least 10 in Urumqi last month in the far western region of Xinjiang. Rescue efforts were hampered by covid restrictions, with videos circulating on social media showing the fire truck’s hose was unable to reach the fire.

The fire compounded outrage over other tragedies stemming from zero-covid measures. That included an incident in September when a bus taking people to quarantine centers crashed, killing 27, and many stories of people dying from treatable conditions but denied care. Anger over poor conditions in mass quarantine camps, the heavy toll extracted on businesses, and people’s mental health finally bubbled over.

The strict policy has battered China’s economy and sunk cross-border trade volumes to their worst level in two and a half years. Authorities are targeting 5% GDP growth for the year. A Goldman Sachs note put growth slower at 4.5% for this year and predicted that covid restrictions would not fully disappear until the back half of 2023.