China is testing more targeted Covid-19 strategy amid record-breaking Omicron rise
China is testing more targeted Covid-19 strategy amid record-breaking Omicron rise

China is testing more targeted Covid-19 strategy amid record-breaking Omicron rise

China wants to override the iron-fisted “Covid-Zero” lockdown measures it has become known for, in favor of a more precise approach to curbing Covid-19, which is less harmful to the country’s economy.

A record increase in Covid-19 infections, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variantputs this strategy to its toughest test to date, with implications for global business and China’s ability to eventually find a way out of its containment strategy.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping highlighted Thursday’s urgency and difficulty at a meeting of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee, in which he demanded officials urgency. to get infections under controlbut also strives to “minimize the impact of the Covid situation on economic and social development.”

The updated measures, including more effective testing and shorter and more targeted quarantines, appear to provide the desired results in some cities.

In Shanghai, the site of a local outbreak,

Tesla Inc.

and

Volkswagen AG

factories have been able to restart production after 48-hour suspensions, compared to the weeks it took many Chinese companies to resume after hard shutdowns early in the pandemic.

The southern metropolis of Shenzhen, which is also plagued by a wave of infections, said on Thursday it would allow businesses to resume work in an orderly fashion after suspending unnecessary businesses in a week-long containment program it described as ” slow life. “

China’s National Health Commission allowed the use of antigen – based tests, which are faster and easier to administer.


Photo:

TINGSHU WANG / REUTERS

Elsewhere, officials had to fall back on older methods with heavier hands. As infections began to spread out of control, residents of the northeastern province of Jilin was affected by restrictions on journeys and movements reminiscent of the harsh lockdown imposed on the city of Wuhan and the surrounding Hebei Province in early 2020, and again on the city of Xi’an last winter.

On Friday, China’s National Health Commission said the daily number of new locally transmitted cases rose to 4,130, up from 2,432 cases the day before, but still a thousand cases lower than the record number reported on Monday. The country has registered a total of about 17,000 new cases since Sunday.

Although these figures are minimal compared to other countries affected by Omicron, the increase in cases is nevertheless a problem for China’s leadership. While China’s economy managed the first part of the pandemic better than most, an attempt by Mr Xi to reshape the economy by tightening control over private companies met with growth. The war in Ukraine have put further pressure on Chinapolitically as well as economically, in a year in which Beijing places a premium on economic stability.

The new Covid-19 outbreak has further eroded confidence in the Chinese economy a strong start to the yearwith analysts predicting the country will struggle to hit its annual growth target of 5.5%announced earlier this month.

Health officials in various locations gathered Friday morning to discuss Mr Xi’s comments, according to people familiar with the discussions. An important takeaway, they said, was that the current increase had reinforced the need to move away from strict shutdowns to more precise and cost-effective measures that keep businesses and supply chains afloat.

The contrast between the old “Covid-Zero” approach and the new one, which the government refers to as “dynamic clearing”, is most visible in the country’s largest cities.

When officials in Beijing discovered a small outbreak in a local market in the summer of 2020, authorities resorted to what they described as “wartime-like measures,” sending armies of neighborhood watch volunteers to conduct mass experiments and shut down entire housing complexes for weeks at a time.

As cases began to spread in Shanghai this month, local authorities instead used shorter rolling closures of individual residential buildings, wherever they discovered a high risk of exposure, which they lifted after two days if all residents tested negative.

In Shenzhen, restrictions have varied from district to district based on risk level. While those living in high-risk areas have been asked to stay at home, others are allowed to step out.

Howe Huang, a 29-year-old Internet business employee based in Shenzhen’s low-risk Nanshan district, said he was able to sign up for a “travel slip” from his housing complex management to take on his daily jog or walk. Restaurants are closed for dining, but they still offer takeaway and delivery, he said.

In an update to its pandemic control playbook, the National Health Commission this week lowered its test threshold for recovering patients to be released from quarantine. It also allowed the use of antigen-based tests, which are less accurate than nucleic acid tests, but faster and easier to administer.

A temporary Covid-19 test facility in Yantai, China, this month.


Photo:

str / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

The new guidance also said that asymptomatic patients and those with mild symptoms should go to centralized isolation facilities to free up hospital resources for the treatment of more severe cases. Government data have so far shown that the overwhelming majority of new cases are mild or asymptomatic.

The difference for companies has in some cases been significant.

Foxconn Technology Group,

a great collector of

Apple Inc.’s

iPhones, took about two months to resume production at its Chinese factories after the country’s first round of shutdowns in 2020. On Wednesday, the company said its campus in Shenzhen would reopen in an Olympic-style bubble environment just two days after it suspended activities.

Tesla’s factory in Shanghai resumed production early Friday after a similar two-day suspension when workers who tested negative were allowed to return from shortened quarantines, according to people familiar with the matter.

Some regions still resort to older methods. For the most part, they tend to be poorer cities and provinces without the resources or tools to use more flexible methods, according to Chinese health officials and financial analysts.

Hong Kong has faced a record-breaking increase in Covid-19 cases and the world’s highest death rate, prompting authorities to impose strict restrictions. WSJ’s Diana Chan reports on how everyday life has changed in the city, from panic buying to an exodus of residents. Photo: Emmanuel Serna / Zuma Press

This dynamic has unfolded in Jilin, a $ 24 million province in China’s northeastern rust belt with a local gross domestic product less than a third the size of Shanghai. Travel in and out of the province has been restricted and all residents have been subjected to several rounds of mass testing. Millions of people have been ordered to stay indoors, and one every other day has been ordered to buy food and other necessities.

Although its factory in Shanghai is in operation, Volkswagen’s factory in Changchun, the capital of Jilin, remained closed from Friday. The province still accounts for the vast majority of new cases with 2,626 on Friday. Shanghai and Shenzhen, meanwhile, had 260 and 105 new cases, respectively.

Given how Omicron has overwhelmed other countries, including those that had previously been successful in containing the virus, China’s ability to prevent infection rates from exploding has been further impressive, according to Yanzhong Huang, a health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

“It shows China’s state capacity,” Mr Huang said.

China could bring matters under control as early as April, he said, though the country would still have to prepare for and then deal with the inevitable next outbreak, which will continue to be very costly.

China has planned to keep some kind of Covid-19 containment regimen in place at least until next spring, after Mr Xi has secured an expected third term as leader of the Communist Party. Mr. Xi’s comments this week did not suggest a change in those plans, according to Chinese health officials.

Zhang Wenhong, one of China’s top experts in infectious diseases, said during a news conference on Thursday that China should use the time it bought with its Covid-19 control measures to increase vaccination, ensure the availability of antiviral drugs to treat Covid -19 and improve its health capacity.

This current increase also provides an opportunity for people to start learning to live with higher caseloads, so they will be better prepared mentally when China eventually opens up, said a member of a local branch of the CDC.

Beijing-based business leader Vivian Wang is among those already willing to risk exposure to Covid-19 in exchange for more freedom. On Sunday, she was ordered by building management to spend a Sunday night at her company’s office with three dozen other people without explanation, though she said suspects had been in close contact with a Covid-19 patient in the same building.

“Today, I am more concerned about being caught in this kind of quarantine than catching the virus,” she said.

Write to Sha Hua at [email protected]

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