The miscarriage of a pregnant Chinese woman who was denied medical treatment due to the COVID-19 lockdown has revived controversy about China’s zero-tolerance policy. China, where the coronavirus was found in 2019, is one of the last countries to follow the “Zero Covid” policy, which placed millions of people under quarantine.

What is ‘Zero Covid’?

According to the Chinese government, this approach has helped to suppress more than 30 COVID-19 outbreaks, including several caused by the highly contagious delta type. To prevent the infection from spreading, rigorous procedures have been implemented, including mass testing, lockdowns, and extended quarantines.

To contain outbreaks, China employs the “dynamic zero” strategy, which entails strict lockdowns and widespread testing. People in China may be prohibited from leaving their buildings or confined to their rooms if they are deemed high-risk contacts, in contrast to other areas where lockdowns are less severe. In the similar-sized city of Zhengzhou, an extreme incidence happened when all people were tested after only 11 cases. International flights are a tenth of what they were before the outbreak, and new visitors are quarantined for weeks. Close contacts are frequently found and quarantined rapidly as a result of obligatory track-and-trace software.

What is the cost of ‘Zero Covid’ and who pays it? 

Yes, “Zero Covid” is not free. Businesses have been compelled to abandon locations near Myanmar’s border as a result of the near-constant lockdowns.

Food, medical care, and supplies have all been reported to be in short supply in communities that have been closed down. In the meantime, migrants have been separated from their families for months due to onerous travel requirements and limitations. In many circumstances, enforcing the law has been overbearing. Quarantine staff beat a Corgi to death after its owners were quarantined in one incident that sparked anger. Despite the fact that China is the only global economy expected to grow in 2020, the country’s recession is exacerbated by frequent plant and business closures.

Why is China sticking to it?

The benefits of Covid Zero outweigh the expenses, according to its calculations. According to the government, the strategy has saved 1 million lives and 50 million illnesses. Covid claimed the lives of fewer than 5,000 people in China, the majority of whom perished in Wuhan during the virus’s first transmission. In comparison, more than 900,000 people died in the United States, which has a population of less than a fourth of China’s. These numbers have been utilised by Beijing to represent their governance system as superior. In addition, Covid Zero has helped China’s economy, the world’s second-largest, to rise in 2020 when other major economies fell. By the end of 2021, the industrial economy had mostly escaped the effects of increasingly regular flare-ups, with record export growth thanks to robust international demand. In some cases, the illnesses and the limits imposed to contain them snarled supply lines and made it difficult for businesses to meet production targets.

Is China ever going to reopen?

“China has undoubtedly proved it is conceivable to continue the zero Covid Strategy virtually indefinitely,” says Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University.

The country was effectively cut off from the rest of the world in March 2020. Foreigners have been effectively barred from entering. Despite the fact that travel restrictions have relaxed marginally since then, foreign tourism is still non-existent. The government has stated that Chinese passports will not be renewed unless a genuine justification for travel is supplied. The government is desperately defending the capital and strengthening restrictions, so the country is unlikely to reopen until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing.

Those who challenge “zero Covid” have been met with a nationalistic backlash. In July, Zhang Wenhong, a well-known Chinese medical specialist, said that countries must “learn to coexist with the virus,” prompting troll attacks online.

What’s the domestic downside? 

As the virus has evolved to become more contagious, outbreaks have become increasingly common, with some requiring rigorous lockdowns to contain. A few have dragged on for weeks, causing food and medical shortages, and even claiming lives in the western metropolis of Xi’an. In other big cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, outbreaks have been contained without the need for city-wide lockdowns. Consumers who are restricted from travelling or who are afraid of diseases have foregone vacations, shopping, and dining, depressing retail spending. Sporadic lawsuits and restrictions exacerbated sluggish investment and a broader property market decline by the end of 2021. Due to the increasing challenge of managing the omicron variety, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. lowered its growth prediction for China in 2022 by 0.5 percentage points. Economic growth might plummet to 1.5 per cent, the lowest in more than four decades, if a national lockdown is implemented, according to the bank.

In the event that China opens up, what will happen? 

There are conflicting opinions.

According to Peking University researchers, if limitations are lifted to the same extent as in Europe and the United States, China will face a “colossal outbreak.” Meanwhile, Ivan Hung, an infectious diseases expert at Hong Kong University, believes that second-generation vaccines targeting the Delta and Omicron variations, paired with high immunisation rates, could prevent a catastrophe. In this case, Hung believes Covid will be similar to influenza.

Allowing the virus in, on the other hand, maybe dangerous for Xi Jinping, who is running for a third term in October after campaigning as a leader who would keep China secure. “When it comes, the shift may be difficult because Chinese society has grown accustomed to low levels of transmission,” says University of Oxford’s Thomas Hale. 

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