The Chinese strategy “Covid zero”, a political and health necessity

Faced with such a contagious form of Covid-19 as the Omicron variant, China’s “zero Covid-19” strategy seems difficult to sustain. A health and political challenge before a crucial year 2022 for Chinese power with the Winter Olympics and the XX Congress of the Communist Party.

Still a month away, the Chinese authorities shelled the chest. China, one of the last countries to apply a “Covid-19 zero” policy, felt a kind of schadenfreude (the pleasure felt at the misfortunes of others) when it saw that most countries reintroduced partial measures to close the borders to contain the increase in the Omicron variant of Sars-CoV-2.

For Beijing, this was proof that its strict strategy to combat the spread of the virus was correct in the face of mutations. National media were quick to portray the country as the latest “impregnable fortress,” said Channel News Asia, a Singaporean news channel.

Xi’an comme Wuhan?

“People must wonder if the Chinese approach does not offer better protection since other countries are beginning to reintroduce, they too, travel restrictions due to the multiplication of pollution with the Omicron variant”, he returned to host in early December. Global Times, a pro-Beijing Chinese tabloid.

But since mid-December, China’s “fortress” seems to be cracking more and more. On December 13, Beijing announced that it had discovered the first two Omicron variant aircraft carriers on its territory. Almost ten days later, nine contagions from this particularly contagious mutation were officially identified in China.

A number that may seem low compared to other parts of the world, but for a country that prides itself on not tolerating any cases of Covid-19, that is already a lot.

Especially since, at the same time, health authorities are fighting to contain the spread of the virus in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province (central China). More than 150 contaminations were officially identified on Sunday, December 26, in this city of 13 million inhabitants that, however, has been in quarantine since Thursday, December 23 after the discovery of ten cases.

The measures deployed in this regional metropolis are the most drastic since the complete isolation of Wuhan at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in January 2020. No one can enter or leave the city, only one person per household can go shopping once . Every other day, all non-essential stores have been closed and tens of thousands of residents have been tested. Finally, the municipality announced, on Monday, December 27, the imminent adoption of new, even stricter measures, without specifying which ones.

Beijing also sanctioned six city officials, accused of reacting too slowly to the explosion of new cases in Xi’an, whose origin appears to be one of the passengers on a plane from Pakistan.

Local authorities were quick to clarify that none of those who tested positive in Xi’an were carriers of the Omicron variant. But this is only a small consolation for Beijing because this outbreak shows above all that “even if the control of the epidemic is excellent in China, the gaps in the border control allow the virus to spread”, underlines Jin Dong-yan, virologist from the University of China. Hong Kong, interviewed by South China Morning Post.

Omicron vs the Winter Olympics

An imperfect mesh that was long enough from the original Sars-CoV-2 strain or early mutations. But with the arrival of Delta variants and especially Omicron, which are much more contagious, authorities “must adapt to react even faster in case new outbreaks are detected,” Jin Dong-yan said.

Some doubt that this is possible. “It is going to be very difficult for China to maintain its ‘Covid-19 zero’ policy with the Omicron variant,” Tulio de Oliveira, a virologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa who was part of the team that first identified the latest mutation in Sars-CoV-2.

With Omicron, the number of contaminations “typically doubles every two to three days, making case tracking, essential if we want to enforce a ‘zero Covid-19’ policy, very difficult,” says Kwok Kin-on. , an epidemiologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, interviewed by the South China Morning Post.

To achieve this, the Chinese government “would be forced to allocate even more financial resources to fighting the spread of the virus, which could seriously slow down China’s economic recovery,” the Financial Times said.

That is why Beijing “will have to align itself with other countries and adopt a policy of coexistence with the virus instead of eradicating it,” believes Lawrence Gostin, a public health specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, interviewed by North American public radio. Voice of America.

An election that the Chinese government refuses to consider at the moment. First for political reasons. With the Winter Olympics approaching, which is due to begin in Beijing on February 4, 2022, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants to maintain the semblance of a “zero Covid-19” policy that works, believes Leo Poon, a Virologist from Hong Kong, interviewed by Financial Times.

There is also no doubt that the government will change its course of health the year the 20th CCP Congress is supposed to ratify a third term as Xi Jinping’s president. The leader has, in fact, been the main proponent of the “zero Covid-19” policy and abandoning it would be “an admission of failure,” Channel News Asia notes.

An inadequate healthcare system

The Chinese health system is also not ready for a Western-style “coexistence” policy with the virus, health authorities say. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in late November that predicts a “catastrophic explosion” of new cases if the hard line to combat the spread of the virus is abandoned. Their model shows several hundred thousand new infections per day and a total collapse of the healthcare system.

“China simply does not have the capacity to handle such an influx of patients. The number of nurses per 1,000 people in the United States, for example, is seven times that of China. And yet there is already a perceived shortage of health workers in North America, “says Chen Xi, a health policy specialist at Yale University, interviewed by Voice of America.

Therefore, the “zero Covid-19” policy is not just a political option to show the world that China is doing better than most other countries. It is also “a health necessity while waiting for the vaccination campaign to allow the population to achieve a form of herd immunity,” underlines a note from Capital Economics, a British economic analysis firm, cited by Washington Post.

And this is where the last shoe tightens. Against Omicron, the two main vaccines used in China, Sinovac and Sinopharm, are not very effective, according to recent tests. Thus, even three doses of the Sinovac vaccine do not offer “sufficient protection” against the new variant, Hong Kong researchers concluded in a study published on Thursday, December 23.

Therefore, Beijing appears to be stuck between a “Covid-19 zero” strategy that seems inadequate for highly contagious variants and a shift towards a “Western” approach to fighting the epidemic that could lead to a health disaster in China. . All this with the approach of a politically very sensitive New Year for the Chinese authorities.


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