Illustration: Stephen Case
Fang Zihao
Fang Zihao

Why China is right to stick to its zero-Covid strategy, amid the Delta variant surge

  • With a different approach, it might be almost impossible to keep the caseload from overwhelming China’s medical system
  • Case numbers are rising rapidly elsewhere, even in populations with high vaccination rates, and such a scenario would just be too costly for China

A new wave of Covid-19 cases is threatening lives in every corner of the world, including China, a country largely immune to previous waves of the pandemic.

Given the higher transmission rates of the Covid-19 mutations and possible lower efficacies of developed vaccines, herd immunity may not be achievable. The R0, or number of people one sick person will infect, for the Delta variant has reached five or higher; this means at least 80 per cent of the entire population needs to be immune to the Delta variant to achieve herd immunity.

However, according to studies, vaccines available at the moment might be less than 80 per cent effective against the variant. Therefore, even if everyone is vaccinated, Delta may continue to wreak havoc.

This year, the number of new Covid-19 cases and deaths have reached new heights worldwide, far exceeding those for last year.

Comparing the numbers for the past four weeks with those for the same period last year in countries and regions with higher vaccination rates (including the United Arab Emirates, Chile, Israel, Britain, Europe and the United States), only Chile had lower case and death numbers this year.


Delta variant drives Covid-19 surge in southern US as unvaccinated are urged to get shots

Delta variant drives Covid-19 surge in southern US as unvaccinated are urged to get shots

In contrast, Britain and Europe saw numbers soar this year. Clearly, vaccines do not necessarily provide a perfect shield.

Among the “Variants of Concern” and “Variants of Interest” designated by the World Health Organization, Beta, Gamma and Lambda could be better at dodging the immune system.

Many scientists predict that as Covid-19 continues to spread, especially in the global south, more dangerous variants are likely to emerge. As a result, the protective effect of the current vaccines may decline further.

Since the Delta variant became prevalent, caseloads have risen exponentially across the Asia-Pacific.

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In the past four weeks, the numbers of newly confirmed cases and deaths in Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) accounted for 30 per cent and 38 per cent of the totals since the start of the pandemic; the numbers of new cases and deaths were respectively 17 and 24 times those for the same period last year.

Even in Japan and South Korea, which have relatively well-developed medical systems, hospitals have been overcrowded under the onslaught of the Delta variant.

In the alarming context of the Delta surge, China’s zero-Covid strategy continues to make sense. With a different approach, it might be next to impossible to keep the caseload within the range the medical system can accommodate; in other words, the epidemic curve is getting harder to flatten as the R0 is much higher for the new variants.

Now, let’s imagine a China that adopts the same strategy as the above-mentioned leaders in vaccination efforts: what would the scale of destruction by Covid-19 be like in this China?

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Projecting from the data for those countries and regions with high vaccination rates, the number of Covid-19 cases for the past year would reach 8.4 per cent of the Chinese population, and deaths for the past year would hit 0.13 per cent; this would translate into a hypothetical 117 million cases and 1.9 million deaths for the past year.

Such a painful cost is simply unbearable. By some estimates, the value of a statistical life in China is about 2 million yuan (US$310,000). Thus, the loss caused by 1.9 million Covid-19 deaths would reach nearly 4 trillion yuan, or 4 per cent of China’s gross domestic product.

Some may argue that most of the deaths are patients over 60, who already have a shorter life expectancy. But, then, the far-reaching effects of even a single infection or death should also be kept in mind.

Although such effects are difficult to estimate, some researchers have tried. According to a US study, when someone is infected, they and their family members lose 0.061 of a quality-adjusted life-year. Besides, such studies may not have taken into account the fact that child hospitalisations for Covid-19 have risen amid the Delta surge.


Covid-19 Delta variant cluster spreads in China’s eastern Jiangsu province

Covid-19 Delta variant cluster spreads in China’s eastern Jiangsu province

Meanwhile, a rule of thumb in global health is that it is worth paying one to three times GDP per capita to save one life year. By this count, 117 million infections would cost China around 1 trillion yuan, or 1 per cent of the country’s GDP.

China’s zero-Covid strategy has served its economy well. Before the pandemic, the Chinese economy was expected to grow by 5.7 per cent annually in 2020 and 2021: that is, allowing for natural unemployment, the economy could achieve 5.7 per cent growth without generating excessive inflation or overheating.

The average two-year growth of China’s economy for 2020 and 2021 is likely to reach 5.3 per cent, implying that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been only 0.4 percentage points. So, the Chinese government’s zero-Covid strategy has been a triumph – economical yet successful.

When it comes to opening up to the world, the negative impact of strict border control measures has been fully compensated for by the successful economic rebound. In the first half of this year, the average two-year growth rates of China’s international trade and actual use of foreign capital reached double digits.

According to the latest World Investment Report issued by UNCTAD, global flows of foreign direct investment plunged by a third in 2020, but FDI flows to China increased by 6 per cent. Meanwhile, China’s FDI outflows decreased by only 3 per cent, and it was the largest investor country last year.

Months ago, the Delta variant landed in Guangdong. But comprehensive containment measures – including mass testing, isolation of confirmed and suspected patients, lockdowns of high-risk areas and vaccination – have proved to be low cost and very effective.

As China’s domestically transmitted cases have been on the decline in recent days, the victory is surely not far off.

Fang Zihao is currently studying for a PhD in economics at Koc University in Istanbul