The distressing case of a pregnant Chinese woman miscarrying after a strict lockdown delayed her access to medical treatment has reignited debate over the limits of China’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19.
The country where the coronavirus was first detected in 2019 is now among the last places still at ‘zero Covid’, placing millions of people in quarantine even as Beijing prepares to host this month’s Winter Olympics next.
How does China maintain “zero Covid”?
China has a formula it calls “zero dynamics” for curbing epidemics: strict lockdowns and immediate mass testing.
Unlike softer closures elsewhere, people in China may be prohibited from leaving their buildings or forced to stay inside hotel rooms if they are considered high-risk contacts.
The historic city of Xi’an, home to famous Terracotta Warriors, was closed in December, forcing its 13 million residents to stay indoors after around 150 cases were detected.
The similar-sized city of Zhengzhou tested every resident after just 11 cases.
International flights are only a fraction of pre-pandemic levels, with arrivals subject to a strict one-week quarantine.
Mandatory track and trace apps mean close contacts are usually detected and quarantined quickly.
Does it work?
China’s official tally since the start of the pandemic – just over 100,000 – is a fraction of the record one million cases recorded by the United States in a single day earlier this month.
The official death toll has remained below 5,000.
Although cases of the chaotic initial outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020 are widely believed to have been underreported, life since then has largely returned to normal.
“There is still no possibility of preventing the occurrence of unique local cases, but we have the capacity and the confidence to quickly extinguish the epidemic when a local case is detected,” told reporters on head of the National Health Commission, Liang Wannian.
Who pays the price?
“Zero Covid” comes at a cost.
Border areas, especially near Myanmar, have suffered almost constant closures and have seen a business exodus.
Contained communities complained of limited access to food, supplies and medical care.
Meanwhile, migrant workers have been isolated from their families for months due to onerous travel rules and restrictions.
A brutal application has occasionally sparked outrage, such as when health workers beat a corgi to death after the owners were quarantined.
Analysts say repeated plant and business closures have contributed to the country’s slowdown, despite China being the only major economy to grow in 2020.
Will China ever reopen?
“China has certainly shown that it is possible to pursue the zero Covid strategy almost indefinitely,” Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, told AFP.
The country effectively cut itself off from the world in March 2020 and virtually banned foreigners from entering.
Since then, travel restrictions have eased slightly.
But international tourism is non-existent, and the government has said it will not renew expiring Chinese passports unless the holder has a good reason to travel.
The country won’t reopen until at least after the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, with the government anxiously guarding the capital and tightening restrictions ahead of the Games.
Those who question “zero Covid” have faced a nationalist backlash.
Prominent Chinese medical expert Zhang Wenhong wrote in July that countries may have to “learn to coexist with the virus” – sparking attacks from online trolls.
What will happen if China opens up?
Researchers at Peking University have warned that China could experience a “colossal epidemic” that will overwhelm its medical system if it relaxes restrictions to a level similar to that of Europe and the United States.
But Ivan Hung, an infectious disease expert at the University of Hong Kong, said second-generation vaccines targeting the Delta and Omicron variants – along with vaccination rates of nearly 100% – could avert disaster.
In this scenario, “it is likely that Covid will turn out to be similar to the flu,” Hung said.
But letting the virus in could be risky for President Xi Jinping as he runs for a third term in October after presenting himself as a leader who will always keep China safe.
“When it does, the transition may not be easy as Chinese society has become quite used to a low level of transmission,” Thomas Hale of Oxford University told AFP.
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)