Around the world, strict restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic – including lockdowns, curfews, long periods of isolation and quarantine – are giving way to community mitigation measures and, more broadly , to a relaxed and more pragmatic approach. But in Hong Kong and China, where authorities continue to prioritize a more bulletproof response, there is still no end in sight to a “zero-COVID” strategy, two years into the pandemic.
China is now on high alert after detecting the first local outbreak of the omicron variant, weeks before the country is due to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The northern coastal city of Tianjin, which has a population of 14 million and borders Beijing, was placed under partial lockdown, with strict exit controls, after two residents were found to be infected with the new variant last Saturday. Over the weekend, another 40 positive cases were reported as part of a citywide testing program, although it has not been confirmed by health authorities whether these cases all originated of the omicron variant.
The new variant, believed to be far more contagious than previous strains, is testing the limits of China’s zero-COVID approach. “Whether in terms of tracing the origin of the virus or epidemiological investigations, the omicron variant has brought about challenges and difficulties of unprecedented magnitude,” admitted Zhang Yang, deputy director of the control center, on Monday. Tianjin Diseases, in an interview on state television. On the same day, the omicron variant had already escaped the country’s strict controls on internal travel, heading to the city of Anyang in Henan province and triggering another lockdown there. The new variant was also detected in Wuxi, a city in Jiangsu province.
Omicron will shatter hope for a coronavirus-free world for those who irrationally cling to it, Amesh Adalja, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told Bloomberg. “It’s not like Noah’s Ark, where you wait for everything to pass and then come back,” he said.
Chinese authorities, however, have reason to be concerned about the spread of the new variant. Due to its zero-tolerance approach during the pandemic, the Chinese population has been less exposed to the coronavirus than countries that have experienced major outbreaks, and as a result, they have not developed the same level of herd immunity. . Second, despite a relatively high national vaccination coverage of 82.5%, the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines against the new variant remains open to debate, raising doubts about the protection they offer. A laboratory study conducted by universities in Hong Kong, for example, found that the CoronaVac vaccine produced by Sinovac Biotech is unable to produce adequate antibodies to neutralize the highly mutated omicron variant.
And with fewer critical care hospital beds available than in countries like South Korea and the United States, there are also fears that a spike in local infections will strain the public health system, as it s happened in Wuhan at the start of the pandemic.
Adamant about curbing the virus ahead of the Winter Olympics, Chinese officials have called for “resolute adherence” to the aggressive zero infection policy. The strategy “is the best option and the guiding principle for disease control work in China,” said Liang Wannian, who heads China’s National Health Commission’s COVID-19 task force.
While analysts and public health experts agree that it is possible for Beijing to prevent major omicron outbreaks with the range of tools at its disposal, they nevertheless question the opportunity costs of the strategy. from Beijing.
Xian, a city of 13 million, is in the third week of a lockdown put in place after a delta resurgence that marked China’s biggest outbreak since Wuhan in early 2020. After being confined to them for long periods, many residents reported shortages of essential food and supplies. Meanwhile, incidents of patients being denied medical care for conditions unrelated to COVID overzealous enforcement of pandemic measures, including two pregnant women who lost their babies after treatment delays, fueled local community anger.
In a report this month, US consultancy Eurasia Group named China’s zero-tolerance pandemic policy as the top political risk of 2022. Tough lockdowns to control future outbreaks “will lead to greater economic disruption, more state intervention, and a larger dissatisfied population disagreeing with the triumphant ‘China defeated Covid’ mantra of state media,” the report’s authors wrote. they added, “The initial success of zero Covid and Xi’s personal attachment to it make any change of course impossible.”
The World Bank and other observers have lowered their 2022 forecast for China’s economic growth as new lockdowns threaten to derail the country’s pandemic recovery. Morgan Stanley economists see the new variant as a potential tipping point, where the economic costs of Beijing’s draconian measures against COVID-19 begin to outweigh its benefits.
Across the border, Hong Kong, which has aligned its pandemic policies with those of Beijing, faces the same dilemma. The city has reported 345 cases in the past two weeks, most of which were imported from foreign travelers and 279 involved omicron. Amid fears of a local outbreak, Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration has tightened social distancing rules, closed entertainment venues and suspended kindergartens and elementary schools, returning the city to conditions imposed at the start of the pandemic.
The restrictions will likely weigh on restaurants, as a ban on eating in after 6 p.m. came into effect last week, while new quarantine restrictions on cabin crew forced Hong Kong’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific to suspend flights. cargo flights, disrupting future supply chains. Lunar New Year. Further stoking public discontent, dozens of senior government and pro-Beijing officials lawmakers were found to have attended a birthday banquet, potentially in violation of COVID-19 restrictions, where two guests later tested positive for coronavirus.
If the unsustainable Zero COVID policies continue, they are likely to have a negative effect on more than Hong Kong’s businesses and citizens. As Anjani Trivedi wrote in Bloomberg, “If officials are unwilling to adapt to the reality of the world in 2022, then there is no turning back on Hong Kong’s rapid descent into isolation. and irrelevance as a financial capital – or even an important Chinese territory.”
In other news
Beijing voiced support for efforts by a so-called peacekeeping mission led by Russian troops to quell riots in Kazakhstan on Monday. During a telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi conveyed a message of support from President Xi Jinping and expressed his firm opposition to any attempt by “external forces” to cause unrest and to incite “color revolutions” in Kazakhstan. . Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony in person, where he and Xi will meet in person for the first time in two years.
As Chinese human rights lawyers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi face subversion charges that could see them jailed for 10 years or more, The New York Times’ Chris Buckley charts their rise to prominence, along with their campaigns advocates and their encounters with the Chinese legal system. over the years.
Their latest troubles began in 2019, when Chinese authorities focused on a weekend gathering they attended, along with 20 other activists and lawyers, to discuss the country’s embattled human rights movement. Many of those present have since fled the country, after authorities began targeting them for arrest. Xu and Ding refused to leave, and now they could pay the price with their freedom. Their confidence is their strength, said Ding’s wife, Sophie Luo, who is now based in the United States, but also their weakness. “They think the story is heading towards democracy and freedom,” she added.
China Note-Taker writes anonymously for personal security reasons.