Hutong Cat | China and Covid: From Wuhan to a zero-Covid policy

The Covid-zero policy essentially means the snapping of community transmission, and not a single case reported for at least a month
Even as the pandemic spread globally, China controlled the outbreak within its own territory. As hospitals across the world gasped for oxygen and ventilators, China dismantled the temporary ones it had built to cater to patients in Wuhan – the first signs of triumph (AFP) PREMIUM
Even as the pandemic spread globally, China controlled the outbreak within its own territory. As hospitals across the world gasped for oxygen and ventilators, China dismantled the temporary ones it had built to cater to patients in Wuhan – the first signs of triumph (AFP)
Published on Nov 01, 2021 07:09 PM IST
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BySutirtho Patranobis

In late July, a well known infectious diseases expert, Zhang Wenhong, wrote about China’s need to exist long-term with the Covid-19 causing coronavirus.

“What we’ve been through is not the hardest part. What’s harder is finding the wisdom to coexist with the virus in the long run,” wrote Zhang on social media. “The way China will choose in future will... help establish communication with the world and a return to normal life, while protecting citizens from fear of viruses,” Zhang wrote.

Instead of the “wisdom” Zhang spoke about, the vitriol against his view came out thick and swift: Zhang was vilified on China’s Twitter-like Weibo as a “traitor”, pandering to western ideas, by the same netizens who until then had compared him fondly with American epidemiologist Anthony Fauci.

Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University lost no time in opening a plagiarism probe into his doctoral thesis, submitted two decades ago.

Often-quoted by official Chinese media on the pandemic, Zhang went radio silent.

The message, however, went out shrill and loud – do not question China’s “zero-covid” policy.

Two months later, and with less than 100 days to go for 2022’s Winter Olympics, China is carrying on with its policy to stamp out Covid-19 from the country, infection by infection, even as countries such as Singapore and New Zealand move towards co-existence.

The Covid-zero policy essentially means the snapping of community transmission, and not a single case reported for at least a month.

China is implementing the policy through strict lockdowns following the detection of even a handful of cases, efficient contact tracing, hard quarantine measures and controlled or closed international borders.

It also entails large-scale nucleic acid testing, sometimes repeatedly on the same population, and mandatory travel and health code management.

So far, however, China has not been successful in reaching the “zero covid” mark, raising questions over the efficacy of the approach.

Small, sporadic outbreaks have been reported from nearly all Chinese provinces other than Tibet since the middle of 2020; several this year have been triggered by the Delta variant.

But there’s been no let-up in the policy.

Sample this: Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, a city of four million, was locked down in late October after it reported six cases on a day – in all 39 cases until that day for a few days. In Beijing, which now has around dozen cases detected in more than a week, access to tourist sites has been limited and residents advised not to leave the city unless necessary; entry to the Capital is restricted as well.

What are the reasons behind China’s hard decision to determinedly opt for the zero covid approach?

For the Communist Party of China (CPC), the motivation to follow this approach stems from a mix of ideological and political reasons and the belief it is the only way to contain the contagion in the world’s most populous country. For the CPC, it has been humiliating to deal with the perceived stigma of being the authoritarian rulers of a country where the virus was first detected in late 2019 – a reminder of the SARS outbreak in 2003 when the country’s national strength was much less.

After all, it is a 100-year old party, at the head of the second-largest economy in the world, a country on the verge of building a space station of and on its own, a party-state, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The outbreak, which became public knowledge in January, 2020, was followed by a barrage of criticism against an attempt by authorities to hide information about it.

After the crisis, however, came the opportunity.

Even as the pandemic spread globally, China controlled the outbreak within its own territory. As hospitals across the world gasped for oxygen and ventilators, China dismantled the temporary ones it had built to cater to patients in Wuhan – the first signs of triumph.

Then came the winner’s narrative -- the superiority of the Chinese system over western liberal democracies. China’s Covid-19 numbers came in handy: 97061 confirmed Covid-19 cases (as of October 30), 4636 deaths. The country’s economy too rebounded despite slowing down considerably in the third quarter of 2021: Achievements hailed as a victory for China’s anti-pandemic policies.

As China rapidly moved to stamp out the cluster infections, it also carried out the world’s largest vaccination drive: As of October 23, 76% of China’s 1.41 billion population had received full doses.

One aspect isn’t clear: How many of those infected in the recent outbreaks were fully vaccinated? Is China not opening up because its vaccines aren’t effective?

Nevertheless, China’s success in controlling the spread of Covid-19 is now a treasured moment of political pride for the CPC — it’s a victory of its strict “zero covid” as opposed to the “laissez-faire” virus-control policies of western countries.

A continuing collateral of China’s isolationist policy are the thousands of students and separated families who have not been able to return to China after they left the country last year. A case in point are those stuck in India: Despite the India government’s efforts, China has not permitted nearly 23000 Indian students and hundreds of Indians working here, arguing that it is a preventive measure to contain the virus.

As the Winter Olympics approach, scheduled to begin on February 4 in Beijing and neighbouring areas, China’s resolve to stamp out every infection seems to grow stronger.

China’s high vaccination rate should in principle allow it to shift to a less disruptive strategy, Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics, told Reuters on October 28, “But extreme caution prevails,” he said. “Any shift (in zero covid policy) seems unlikely until at least after the Winter Olympics in February.”

As for the virus expert, Zhang Wenhong, he seems to have been rehabilitated after facing flak for his “learn-to-live” with the virus remark. Three weeks after the original remark, Zhang wrote another piece on China’s Twitter-like Weibo where he said, “…but we must have steadfast faith. Our country’s current anti-epidemic strategy is what suits us the best. Only the one who wears the shoes knows if the shoes fit”.

Last heard, Fudan University was no longer pursuing the case of plagiarism against him.

The views expressed are personal

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Monday, January 24, 2022