China’s zero-Covid policy leaves experts at a loss with no definite end in sight
- Observers see no signs of fundamental change in strict anti-pandemic policy, though some tweaks may be in the offing
- With his third term secured, Xi Jinping must now address zero-Covid’s impact on the economy, jobs and social stability, some analysts believe
What was missing were any clues on whether the policy would stay in place in the long term.
Observers were left guessing at any signs of change – for instance, could an invitation from Xi for reporters to “travel around the country” suggest an imminent reopening?
But the consensus so far is continued adherence to the zero-Covid response, with perhaps some fine-tuning.
“We are not seeing any signs of fundamental change in policy, that’s for sure. Officials are still stressing the danger of the virus to support the narrative that it puts China at risk,” said Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
“There is even a possibility of stricter controls if a new wave of Covid-19 cases occurs.”
Other issues, such as lingering symptoms known as “long Covid” or the possible side effects of vaccination, could also be used to justify the insistence on zero-Covid, he added.
Local governments across China are still responding to sporadic outbreaks with frequent testing, travel restrictions and snap lockdowns. The strict policy has remained in place despite public discontent over curbs on freedom of movement, food shortages and lack of access to essential medical services.
In Urumqi, which has been under lockdown since August, residents complained online about the months of quarantine. And despite the restrictions, the northwestern city has recorded an uptick in cases, with more than 210 infections reported for Saturday.
Last week, supermarket staff in Lanzhou, in northwestern Gansu province, put their beds in a car park in protest over being forced to remain within the premises after positive cases were detected. They were eventually moved to centralised isolation.
Xining, the capital of neighbouring Qinghai province, has also been under lockdown since August. The government there recently promised to ensure food supplies after residents complained online about shortages due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Leading Chinese epidemiologist Liang Wannian said earlier this month that there was “no timeline” for an exit from zero-Covid rules, and China needed to develop better tools, especially pills that could be taken at home, to control the impact of Covid-19.
Other experts have said that now that the congress is over and the five-yearly leadership reshuffle complete, Xi will need to address the damage caused by the strict response to the economy, jobs and social stability. A gradual change in the rules, to reflect the “dynamic” nature of the response, was likely even though the approach would still be zero-Covid, they said.
A foreign health official with knowledge of the internal discussions within China’s health authority said on condition of anonymity that serious talks were under way but a feasible exit strategy had yet to be identified.
However, a slightly different approach could be expected, he said, as authorities aimed to achieve a flattening of the curve and push back towards zero. Daily cases remain above 1,000 or so.
“I do believe that further simplifications and rationalisations in the approach is something we can expect,” the official said.
“I don’t believe it’s the best use of medical capacity to put everybody with an infection into hospital … Similarly, not everybody who lives in good conditions needs to go to a central quarantine place for a long time to protect others from being infected.
“There are ways of achieving the same [outcome by other] means and I would expect the changes in that regard to happen over the coming months.”
Some changes in border control measures are expected next month, the Post has learned. The existing regimen for inbound travel, of seven days of central quarantine plus three days of home isolation, will be reduced to seven days in total for certain priority groups, but a full reopening may have to wait.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China also announced last week that the number of international flights will double in winter and spring, after a number of government agencies issued measures to boost foreign investment, including facilitating international travel for key personnel.
“Shorter quarantine but still enforcing contact tracing, frequent testing and travel restrictions will make only marginal advantages for the population,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University.
“What is needed is a well-managed and predictable easing of all restrictions, with the goal being to live with Covid just as the rest of the world has done.”
Gostin said Xi, who has travelled overseas recently and is due to attend the G20 summit in Indonesia next month, would seek opportunities to de-escalate and gradually relax the policy, especially now that his term in office has been extended.
Xi secured a norm-breaking third term as general secretary of the Communist Party at the recently concluded congress, and also introduced a core team packed with loyalists.
A common expectation is that China could pivot away from zero-Covid after the annual legislative meetings in March. But there could be a chance to change strategy earlier if the World Health Organization declares an end to the emergency phase of the pandemic, according to Gostin.
“If the WHO ended its emergency declaration, that would give Xi more scope to move more quickly in ending zero-Covid,” he said.
But Huang at CFR said the WHO’s influence on Chinese public health decisions had dwindled and any announcement that the global health emergency had ended was unlikely to have a “decisive effect”.
“It will not be the most important reason for a fundamental change in the policy but only an opportunity when the leadership has already set its mind to it,” Huang said. “The response will continue as long as the top leader believes opening up would bring mass deaths.”
Experts say the key to opening up is a rigorous vaccination campaign to boost public immunity and prevent serious illness and death. But progress has stalled in the past year, with only about 57 per cent of the total population and less than 70 per cent of over-60s having received one booster dose by mid-October.