China’s zero-Covid policy under growing strain as cases continue to spread across country

Source: South China Morning Post
Date: 9th November 2022

  • The city of Guangzhou is the worst hit by the growing wave of cases across the country, with more than 2,000 cases on Wednesday
  • Although the caseload is small by international standards, doubts are growing about whether the current approach can stop Omicron variants from spreading

Covid-19 infections have been rising sharply across China despite increasingly stringent controls, amid growing public discontent and doubts about whether the zero-Covid approach will work against fast, stealthy Omicron variants.

On Wednesday, China reported 8,176 local infections, up from 7,475 a day earlier. Although this is a small case count compared with the rest of the world, it marks a sharp rise since the end of last month when about 1,000 daily cases were reported.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, the centre of the current surge, the outbreak continued spreading.

Authorities have been trying to quell the outbreak for weeks but daily numbers have spiked from double digits late last month to more than 1,000 over the weekend and then to 2,637 new infections on Wednesday.

New cases in Beijing also jumped to the highest level in more than five months, with 32 local cases and 48 asymptomatic ones, with many new cases found by community testing in the past few days.

Elsewhere in the country, the number of cases reported ranged from single figures to a few hundred, despite increasingly stringent controls and prolonged lockdowns.

For example, Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, which has faced on-off lockdowns over the past six months, recorded 32 confirmed cases and 637 asymptomatic cases on Wednesday.

The situation shows the strain the zero-Covid policy is under, with even harsh lockdowns and constant testing failing to quell the outbreaks at an early stage.

This phenomenon reflects the increased transmissibility of the latest Omicron subvariants as well as the difficulty of keeping infections out of the community using travel controls, said a professor of the head of the epidemiology and biostatistics division at the University of Hong Kong.

We know from the experience in Shanghai that prolonged total citywide shutdowns and repeated universal testing will eventually stop transmission in a city even with these highly transmissible strains.

The more important question is whether the enormous economic cost and social impact of prolonged citywide shutdowns would be justified.

The senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank said that compared with a few months ago when outbreaks tended to happen in isolation, cases are now spreading across the country.

Numbers are still small on average, especially compared with the US, but when compared with the goal of the zero-Covid policy, it’s increasingly difficult and unrealistic to achieve.

The senior said it is possible that there have been many unreported cases, as mass testing is not completely reliable, and there could be many asymptomatic cases who are not visiting hospitals or getting tested.

The decision on when and how to abandon zero-Covid was ultimately a political one and the signals from official channels have been contradictory – with some expressing concern about long Covid and others saying Omicron symptoms are light – which perhaps suggests the authorities have yet to make up their minds.

“If the outbreaks had completely spread out across the country, they would be forced to give up the policy,” the senior said.

Currently, the infections are not too high, but they are not completely wiped out either. This makes prediction extremely difficult.

Public discontent over the policy has been growing. Last week, even some popular nationalist bloggers who had previously been praised for zero-Covid, began to publicly criticise the policy, saying strict controls had led many not being able to return home.

In recent weeks, hundreds of workers at the Foxconn plant in the central city of Zhengzhou have fled the compound to escape Covid controls, disrupting production of the latest Apple products, including the iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone Pro Max.

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