Residents wearing face masks walk past a wall displaying posters encouraging people to get vaccinated against Covid-19 in Beijing, June 9, 2022. Photo: AP
Zhou Xin
Zhou Xin

China’s goal of achieving both zero Covid-19 and the resumption of normal economic activity remains elusive

  • The economic and social costs of achieving ‘zero’ Covid are beyond measure
  • For most countries, the focus is no longer on the virus itself but on its health impact

China’s efforts to restore normal economic activity while sparing no effort to contain Omicron have led some people to joke that it’s like driving with your foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time.

Inherent contradictions are visible between a zero-tolerance policy for Omicron and a plan to get life back to normal – partly because the new Covid-19 variant may coexist with humans indefinitely. The experience in Beijing over the last couple of days has shown that. Despite all the good intentions to eliminate Omicron, it remains extremely unlikely, if not entirely impossible, to avoid it making a comeback.

The economic and social costs of achieving “zero” Covid, however, are beyond measure. Beijing has suspended dine-in meals for over a month and closed schools for weeks, with millions being forced to work from home. For most residents in China’s capital city, they have to stand in queues repeatedly to prove they are healthy.

‘Ferocious’ Beijing bar cluster revives Covid-19 worries for China

All the efforts seemed to have paid off on June 8, when the city reported zero new local cases. But there was no time for celebration as local cases flared up again on June 9 and surged over the weekend after a cluster in a bar erupted. Everything seemed to be back at the starting point, with the threat of a new big outbreak about to happen.

How long will it take for Beijing to bring the latest outbreak under control? It could be days or weeks. But the real question remains – What if a new outbreak takes place within days or weeks after the current outbreak is curtailed? The situation is similar in Shanghai and Tianjin.

For cities and places without outbreaks, the day-to-day costs and pressure to keep Omicron at bay are just too high to be sustained. There’s no real victory in the fight against Omicron – the best scenario is to maintain the status quo of no outbreaks through the testing of citizens again and again.


For most countries in the world, the focus is no longer on the virus itself but on its health impact, with lockdowns and quarantines increasingly rare now that there are effective vaccines and improved treatments.

It is necessary for China to study the health implications of Omicron, to improve vaccination rates, and to find new treatments. There’s really no point in trapping the country in a frenetic pursuit of a balance that will always be elusive.