While the rest of the world is learning to live with Covid-19, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, wants his country to continue to strive to live without it – at all costs.
China won a battle against its first outbreak in Wuhan, Mr Xi said last week, and “we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai,” he added, referring to the epicenter of the current outbreak in China. .
But pressure is mounting for a change in the zero-Covid strategy, which has left Shanghai stagnant since March, kept hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens under lockdown nationwide and now threatens to bring Beijing to a halt.
This week, the World Health Organization called China’s current pandemic strategy “unsustainable.” An economist summarized it as “zero movement, zero GDP” Multinational companies have grown on guard of additional investment in the country.
For more than two years, China kept its Covid figure enviably low by reacting vehemently to signs of an eruption with tests and zippers. The success allowed the Communist Party to boast that it had prioritized life over death in the pandemic, in contrast to Western democracies, where deaths from the virus rose sharply.
More transferable variants like Omicron threaten to ruin this success, posing a dilemma for Mr Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. Tougher shutdowns have been imposed to prevent infections from spreading, stifling economic activity and threatening millions of jobs. Chinese citizens have become restless and are pushing back against being forced to stay at home or move into gloomy, government-run isolation facilities.
Still, there is a risk of abandoning the strategy of an increase in deaths, especially among the country’s tens of thousands of unvaccinated elderly people. Researchers warned this week of a “tsunami” of deaths if the virus rose unchecked, leaving China’s fragile national hospital system overwhelmed and increasing the possibility of social unrest.
Fear any disagreement under one politically important year for Mr. Xi, China’s censors have moved quickly to dampen calls for a change of course on Covid-19. The head of the World Health Organization, whose recommendations China once held up as a modelbecame silent this week as he called on the country to reconsider its strategy.
Photographs and references to Tedro’s Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director – General of the WHO, were promptly scrubbed from the Chinese Internet following the statement. The State Department responded by calling Mr Tedros’ remarks “irresponsible” and accusing the WHO of not having a “correct understanding of the facts.”
China’s state-controlled media have also blunted the draconian measures taken by officials to deal with outbreaks. This week, as some authorities in Shanghai erected new fences around quarantine zones, decorated several homes and asked residents not to leave their apartments, state media painted a picture of a city slowly returning to normal.
One article described the “bustle of city life” returning, while another focused on statistics on how many stores had reopened.
But rosy reports from state media cannot hide a threatening challenge that Mr Xi faces.
To date, coronavirus has claimed 569 lives and infected several 777,565 people since March 1, according to official statistics. If left untreated, the outbreak could lead to 112 million infections and nearly 1.6 million deaths between now and July, according to a study by researchers at Fudan University in Shanghai and Indiana University in the United States.
“The situation is pretty bleak, and the study clearly shows the enormous importance of vaccinating and boosting the elderly,” said Marco Ajelli, an infectious disease model at Indiana University’s School of Public Health who contributed to the study.
Less than half of people aged 70 or older in Shanghai have gotten two jabs, according to the study. Across China, the figure is 72 percent, a figure that health experts say should be 95 percent or higher. In dozens of cities where there have been outbreaks or partial shutdowns in anticipation of increasing cases, resources have been spent on eradicating the virus instead of vaccinations.
Currently, the vaccines available in China are also not as potent as foreign ones available in other countries. Chinese vaccines use traditional technology that has been shown to be less effective than cutting-edge mRNA technology. China said last year that it was close to approving BioNTech, a German mRNA shot made in collaboration with Pfizer, but that has not happened. Several Chinese companies are in the testing phase of a home-grown mRNA option, and China has also recently approved a Covid-19 antiviral pill made by Pfizer called Paxlovid for emergency use.
Managing three vaccine shots, using antiviral therapies and offering more effective vaccines could help China find a way out of zero Covid, Mr Ajelli said.
Investors and business leaders are worried that China’s rigid adherence to its zero-Covid policy could send the economy into free fall. “It is high time for the government to change its strategy,” said Fred Hu, a prominent Chinese investor. The benefits of zero Covid no longer outweigh the financial costs, he added. “Sticking to the zero-Covid strategy would decimate its economy and undermine public confidence.”
By one estimate, nearly 400 million people in 45 cities have been under some form of lockdown in China in the past month, accounting for $ 7.2 trillion in annual gross domestic product. Economists are concerned that the shutdowns will have a major impact on growth; an economist has warned that if lockdown measures remain in place for another month, China could go into a recession.
European and American multinationals have said they are discussing ways to move some of their activities out of China. Large companies, which are increasingly dependent on China’s consumer market for growth, are also sounding the alarm. Apple said it could see a $ 4-8 billion hit for its sales due to lockdowns.
Howard Schultz, the interim CEO of Starbucks, said the company “has virtually no ability to predict our performance in China.”
Foreign investment has almost dried up, and some projects have been on hold for more than two years because pandemic restrictions have made it virtually impossible for foreign leaders to visit China. When executives in multinational corporations appeal to senior Chinese officials, their calls are met with silence, said Michael Hart, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in China.
“China has been very steadfast in its views that it has the right strategy and it does not want people to criticize it,” he said. Hart.
Some of China’s top leaders have also begun to share concerns about the economy. Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang described the employment situation as “complicated and serious” as migrant workers and university students struggling to find and keep jobs during lockdowns.
Although daily virus cases in Shanghai are steadily declining, authorities have stepped up measures in recent days following Mr Xi’s call last week to double. Officials also began forcing entire housing developments into government isolation if just one resident tested positive.
The new measures are tougher than those early in the pandemic and have been met pockets of unrestpreviously rare in China, where citizens have mostly supported the country’s pandemic policies.
In a video circulating widely online before being removed by censors, an outraged woman shouts as officials in white hazmat suits smash her door down to take her away to an isolation facility. She protests and asks them to give her proof that she has tested positive. Eventually, she picks up her phone to call the police.
“If you called the police,” one of the men replies, “it would still be me coming.”
Isabelle Qian contributed reporting, and Claire Fu contributed research.