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16 March 2022

China’s zero-Covid policy faces its greatest test

Tens of millions of people are under lockdown and there are fears of disruptions to global supply chains as a new coronavirus outbreak sweeps China.

By Katie Stallard

China is facing its most serious Covid outbreak since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. Tens of millions of people have been confined to their homes across multiple cities, and the entire north-eastern province of Jilin, home to 24 million people, is under lockdown as the authorities struggle to contain the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. China’s stock market has plummeted and with major foreign firms forced to suspend production at key manufacturing hubs, there are fears of further disruptions to already strained global supply chains.

“I would call this a perfect storm,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “You have such a large population that is vulnerable to the virus, either because they have not yet been exposed to it, because they have not been vaccinated, or because the vaccines that have been approved so far have a low efficacy rate.”

The arrival of a new wave of Omicron infections had been anticipated for several months, given how quickly the variant had spread elsewhere, but Huang said the Chinese government had failed to make adequate preparations. “There has been a lack of investment in public health surge capacity-building, a failure to prioritise the elderly population for vaccines, and a failure to approve the more effective mRNA vaccines in time,” he said. “All this has come together to create this situation.”

The number of daily cases is still small by the standards of many Western countries, but while 3,507 new domestically transmitted infections were reported on 15 March, that number had doubled in just 24 hours and health experts have warned that the virus is spreading rapidly. China has responded by locking down major cities such as Shenzhen and Dongguan and restricting movement across large swathes of Shanghai. Under the country’s “zero Covid” approach – also known as “dynamic clearing” – which aims to keep cases as close to zero as possible, local outbreaks are meant to be contained by these swift lockdowns, along with mass testing and aggressive contact tracing.  

But this strategy has struggled to keep pace with the surge of Omicron infections now engulfing the country. It has also caused serious problems for workers and residents who find themselves suddenly forbidden from leaving their homes. During the last wave of citywide lockdowns in December, there were reports of residents in Xi’an (where restrictions have again been imposed) running out of food and being unable to access emergency medical treatment. Factories struggled to keep production lines operating, and ports experienced delays. Major foreign firms such as Apple, Volkswagen and Toyota have already been affected by the latest outbreak, which has hit several important manufacturing centres.

“Industrial production in China is highly agglomerated, which means that lockdowns in one city can have an outsized effect on a particular industry,” said Mary Lovely, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC. Guangdong province in southern China, where, for example, the cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan are located, she explained, is China’s largest exporter and a key node in the global electronics industry. “Further spread of the Omicron variant and associated lockdowns have the potential to disrupt supply chains for cell phones, computers and semiconductors,” Lovely said, while Jilin, in north-east China, which had been badly hit, is an important centre for the production of cars and car parts. If the outbreak persisted and new lockdowns were imposed, she warned, “we will see new shortages in the supply of particular Chinese-made goods”.

[See also: Caught between Putin and the West, Xi Jinping faces a crucial choice on Russia]

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But while China’s “zero Covid” approach has succeeded in significantly limiting the spread of the virus within the country so far, it has also left the country isolated, with little prospect of being able to lift its extensive quarantine requirements and move away from mass lockdowns in the near future. In part, because of the success of those efforts, much of the population has low levels of natural immunity to the virus, and the more effective foreign mRNA vaccines that are available in many other countries have not been cleared by the Chinese authorities for use. The rapid rise of cases across the border in Hong Kong, where hospitals have been overwhelmed and the death rate is now the highest in the developed world, serve as a powerful reminder to Beijing of how quickly the situation could spiral out of control.

Despite early mistakes and attempts to cover up the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has since declared the country’s handling of the pandemic a resounding success. At an elaborate awards ceremony in September 2020, he handed out medals to scientists and officials and hailed their victory in the “people’s war against the coronavirus”. The education ministry has ordered schools to add the pandemic response to the curriculum as a lesson in the superiority of China’s political system, compared with what has been widely portrayed in state media outlets as the shambolic and flailing approach of the West.

Yanzhong Huang told me there were some signs that the government was considering a shift away from its current strategy, but that it was unlikely to take that risk in the near term, given the danger of a public health crisis and the potential threat to social and political stability that might follow. The more probable scenario, he predicted, was that China would eventually succeed in bringing this latest outbreak under control through its containment measures, but that it would then be only a matter of time before the next wave hit and more lockdowns followed, with the cycle endlessly repeating itself.

[See also: How Covid ends]

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