How long can China continue its net-zero Covid-19 approach?

City of four million people locked down after six infections reported

A child is tested for Covid-19 in Lanzhou, China
A child is tested for Covid-19 in Lanzhou, China
(Image credit: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Residents in the capital city of China’s Gansu province have been placed under a strict lockdown in an attempt to stamp out a small local Covid-19 outbreak.

Lanzhou, a city of four million people in the country’s north, has had “buses, taxis and key rail routes suspended”, The Guardian said, with orders for people “not to leave home except in emergencies” following the discovery of six coronavirus cases.

The lockdown is the latest sign that Beijing plans to “double down” on its zero-Covid approach, reported Al Jazeera, even as other countries around the world “adopt new strategies” for living with – and containing – the virus.

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The question now is how long China’s effort to “eliminate the coronavirus entirely from within the mainland’s borders” can last, The Economist asked, especially as “the handful of other countries” that had adopted a zero-Covid approach “move to relax them”.

Strict controls

Officials have begun warning of a “worsening outbreak” of the virus “after the country recorded more than 100 cases across 11 provinces over the last week”, CNN said.

Addressing reporters at a press conference on Sunday, Mi Feng, a spokesperson for the National Health Commission, said that October has been marked by “multiple scattered local outbreaks in China” that are “expanding rapidly”.

Lockdown rules reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic were being reimplemented due to the “increasing risk that the outbreak will spread even further”, he added.

Lanzhou has kick-started “mass-testing as part of China’s zero-tolerance policy to try to eliminate the outbreak”, The Times said. “All of the city’s residential communities are closed off except for one entrance”, with only those “who work on emergency responses, need medical care or need to buy essential supplies allowed to leave”.

The city’s main station has “suspended more than 70 trains, including key routes to major cities such as Beijing and Xi’an”, The Guardian said. “Flights to Lanzhou were also being cancelled” due to the lockdown “without any date given to resume”.

The northern city is not the only area of China living under restrictions that have slowly been phased out in most other countries. According to the state-owned Global Times, Beijing’s Changping district has also “further tightened its epidemic prevention policy”.

After 10 Covid cases were discovered in the past two days, “all chess and card rooms in the district closed” and police have “increased inspections of business establishments in the district, including pharmacies, clinics, hotels, restaurants”, the paper added.

Police in the sprawling capital city have also “launched three criminal investigations into alleged Covid safety breaches”, The Guardian said. No further details are known about the nature of the alleged offences.

“The caseload of China’s latest outbreak pales in comparison with those of some other countries”, including the UK, CNN said. However, “the scope of its spread has worried the Chinese government, which insists on a strict zero-Covid policy to stamp out infections”.

“A widespread Covid outbreak in Beijing would be the last thing Chinese leaders want to see as the city gears up for the 2022 Winter Olympics in February”, the broadcaster added, raising questions about how long the zero-Covid response will continue.

Hard choice

Beijing’s plan to eliminate the virus has so far been reliant on “keeping most foreigners out, meticulous quarantines, huge manpower, track-and-trace apps, intense lockdowns in areas where the virus is found and frequent mass testing”, The Economist said.

“Such efforts have achieved impressive results”, especially considering “the size of the country and the porousness, in normal times, of its land borders with some of its 14 neighbours”, the paper added.

According to Johns Hopkins University tracking, China has so far recorded 109,306 cases and 4,849 deaths, the vast majority of which occurred during the early months of 2020.

A clock counts down to the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing

A clock counts down to the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing
(Image credit: Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images)

But China now finds itself in the position of being “the last major country” pursuing a zero-Covid approach, Time said, after nations including Singapore, Australia and New Zealand abandoned the plan. The strategy has left it “isolated from the world” and has experts wondering “what China’s exit strategy will look like”.

“An expansive compound of buildings covering the equivalent of 46 football pitches” outside Guangzhou, China’s bustling southern metropolis, evidences Beijing’s continued “zero-tolerance approach to Covid”, Al Jazeera said.

“The sprawling complex of three-storey buildings contains some 5,000 rooms”, the broadcaster added, “and is the first of what is expected to be a chain of quarantine centres” built by China “to house people arriving from overseas as it forges ahead” with the plan.

The site, which from the outside “resembles an army base”, has been described by officials as an example of “China speed”, The Economist said. The facility “took just three months to build”, with “another dedicated quarantine centre” with 2,000 rooms set to open shortly in the nearby city of Dongguan.

Beijing “has hailed its success in crushing the coronavirus as evidence of the superiority of China’s political system”, the paper added. But its approach “presents considerable logistical and economic challenges”, the South China Morning Post said.

As infections continue to crop up, forcing large areas back into lockdown, “the inevitability of further cases and a waning of vaccine antibody levels beg the question of how long China should persist with it”, the Hong Kong-based paper added.

The Global Times has said that the policy “deserves defending”, arguing that “all of the recent relatively small, sporadic outbreaks have been quelled in China”. Rather than seeking to “demonize” China’s approach, western countries should instead “think about adopting zero-Covid-19 policy to end the mayhem in their own countries”.

But “as the rest of the world begins to get used to Covid as an endemic disease”, doubt will begin to creep in as to how long China can “keep up its enormous campaign to crush it altogether”, The Economist said.

“Achieving elimination allowed life in China to be largely normal through most of 2020 and 2021”, reported Time, “powering its economy even as most others were sapped by mitigation measures of various efficacy”.

But “the impact is starting to show more deeply” as “snap lockdowns and restrictions on movement continue” while “western economies resume full operations after vaccination”.

In February, Beijing will welcome athletes from around the globe as it hosts the Winter Olympics. But “China is unlikely to relax its policy soon”, The Economist said, pointing to the “imminent opening of Guangzhou’s high-tech quarantine centre”.

“Economic malaise” could “force China’s hand”, the magazine added. But many of “the enforcers” of the approach “have a stake in the status quo”, with the leaders of “grassroots Communist Party committees” gaining “new authority to mobilise people and deploy resources to control Covid”.

“They will not readily return to their often-marginalised pre-pandemic state”. And for now, “nor does the party want them to”.

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