Hutong Cat | Two years of pandemic control later, China faces a hard Covid test
As cities go back into lockdown, China's “Dynamic zero-Covid” strategy is being questioned on its efficacy. Here's why, with new and more transmissible variants, it may not work
Late on Sunday, March 27, the Shanghai government announced that the city was going into a staggered lockdown for mass Covid-19 testing from March 28, the first time since the pandemic started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late December.
China’s glittering financial hub has been in the midst of a battle against a new wave of Covid-19 infections for weeks now.
The numbers are low if compared to some global standards, but enough to worry the health authorities to start a phased nine-day lockdown of the city with some 25 million residents – and, of course, to make Shanghai an example of how China is still at the top of the Covid-control game.
In the past weeks, Shanghai authorities had already closed school campuses, locked down some residential compounds and launched a rigorous round of mass testing.
Until Sunday, however, city authorities had resisted and rejected the idea of locking down the city but after Shanghai recorded its highest daily number of cases on Saturday, authorities quickly changed course.
The eastern half of the city — comprising around 11 million residents — will go into lockdown from Monday for four days, while the remaining 14 million remaining people will start lockdown from Friday.
Public transport will be suspended, and firms and factories will halt operations or work remotely during the lockdown period.
Everyone is required to participate in the citywide Covid-19 screening to maintain a “green” health code status that would allow them to access grocery stores and public areas.
The shutting down of Shanghai is somewhat symptomatic of the new waves of the outbreak that China has experienced this year, especially in March.
From March 1 until now, nearly 60,000 locally transmitted Covid-19 cases have been reported on the mainland, covering 28 provincial-level regions.
The epidemic situation in northeast China's Jilin province is still grim, with the number of newly added cases exceeding 1000 per day for several days.
The new wave has locked down millions of millions of people and disrupted trade and business even as much of the world learns to live with the virus.
“China continues striving to ‘achieve dynamic zero-Covid’ in the short term, as it is still the most economical and most effective prevention strategy against Covid-19,” Wu Zunyou, an infectious disease expert at China’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recently said.
What is the Dynamic zero-Covid strategy?
“The ‘Dynamic zero-Covid’ strategy is a transitional strategy to be adopted after a successful containment strategy, when the population immunity barrier is not yet established in the face of continued risk of foreign importation and high transmission of variants,” scientists from the School of Public Health, Peking University, Vanke School of Public Health, Tsinghua University, and the Institute for Healthy China, Tsinghua University, wrote in a paper for the CDC earlier this year.
“This is different from the traditional containment and mitigation strategies. The core is to take effective and comprehensive measures to deal with localised Covid-19 cases precisely, to quickly cut off the transmission chain, and to end the epidemic in a timely manner (to “find one, end one”),” they wrote.
“Dynamic zero-Covid” strategy sums up China’s experience in dealing with Delta, Omicron, and other variants, which has advantages in reducing infection.
The new wave, triggered by the Delta and Omicron variants, however, has raised sharp questions about whether the existing policies in China are equipped to handle the mild but rapidly spreading strains. And, at what cost?
In response, the national health commission (NHC) has tweaked some of the existing Covid control norms.
People with mild symptoms no longer need to attend designated hospitals but can isolate at centralised facilities, which means that the government now recognises that many infected do not need much help in recovering other than following medical protocols – in the past every infected person had to be admitted to a hospital.
Quarantine-period rules have been reduced.
Also, city-wide testing is no longer being carried out — replaced by targeted local community testing.
For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, self-testing kits are also being made available in stores across the country and online; but those who test positive will need to take PCR tests.
“The change is in response to the majority of cases involving the dominant Omicron strain being asymptomatic or only showing mild symptoms,” a state media report said on the changes.
“As most do not need much treatment, admitting those with mild cases to designated hospitals will take up medical resources unnecessarily,” the NHC said in a statement.
Some rules, however, remain the same, like the mandatory two-week quarantine for those coming in from abroad followed by further monitoring.
The Chinese government is putting up a brave face.
“The latest economic data has already demonstrated how China's economy, which posted stable growth of 8.1 percent amid the epidemic in 2021, began the year on a bright note. Several major indicators, such as retail sales of consumer goods and industrial output, have improved and beaten forecasts,” official news agency, Xinhua said in an opinion piece last week
More changes to Covid control rules, even if implemented gradually, can, however, be expected.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaking at his annual press conference in Beijing on March 11, said China will continue to make its Covid-19 response more scientific and targeted based on the epidemic situation and new developments and features of the virus.
Li said China will prevent and control the epidemic to protect people's life, health and safety to keep up the normal running of work and life, and ensure the security of industrial and supply chains.
“In the near future, at an appropriate time, there will be a Chinese-style roadmap for living with the virus,” Zeng Guang, former chief scientist of China’s CCDC and one of the experts behind the country’s initial anti-Covid response, wrote recently.
China is possibly coming around to a “dynamic clearing” policy, which acknowledges infections occur but aims to stop the transmission of the virus, given how difficult it is to prevent the highly infectious delta and omicron variants from spreading – according to Bloomberg, China hasn’t gone a day with zero new local cases reported since October.
Sutirtho Patranobis, HT’s experienced China hand, writes a weekly column from Beijing, exclusively for HT Premium readers. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath, and was based in Delhi for several years before that
The views expressed are personal