The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

WHO chief calls for end of ‘zero covid’ in China, so Beijing censors him

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, in Geneva on Dec. 20. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/AP)
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When the head of the World Health Organization described China’s hard-line “zero covid” policy as not “sustainable,” the reaction in China on Wednesday was swift — his comments were censored, and he was branded “irresponsible.”

Authorities in China have blocked debate over its controversial approach of constantly striving for zero coronavirus infections through draconian lockdowns. Researchers have warned that abandoning the policy would unleash a “tsunami” of coronavirus cases.

In a briefing Tuesday, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on China to rethink its severe covid controls in light of the more transmissible omicron coronavirus variant.

“We don’t think that it is sustainable, considering the behavior of the virus and what we anticipate in the future,” he said, adding that the health body had discussed the issue with Chinese experts. “We indicated that the approach will not be sustainable. … A shift would be very important.”

China’s unvaccinated elderly prevent an end to covid lockdowns

The comment by Tedros, once seen as an ally of Beijing, is a setback for China, which has strenuously defended its “dynamic clearing” covid policy. In April, China’s Foreign Ministry said the country’s coronavirus controls were in line with the WHO’s principles and were spoken of “highly” by the health body.

Following his comments, the hashtags “World Health Organization” and “Tedros” were blocked on microblog Weibo. The messaging platform WeChat banned the sharing of an article from the United Nations’ official WeChat account that included the director’s comments. It also removed a video clip of his remarks because of “a violation” of the terms of service.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian in a news briefing Wednesday called on Tedros to avoid making “irresponsible” remarks and to view China’s coronavirus policies “objectively.”

Online discussion of Tedros’s statement was also restricted Wednesday. “I thought maybe Tedros was speaking in the name of an international organization to give his majesty a way out,” one user wrote in a comment, referring to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “Seeing all these posts get removed, now I see I was overthinking [their friendship].”

“What a shame this will soon be 404-ed,” another user wrote on Weibo, referring to the code given when content is removed. “After so many years, he finally said something sensible.” Under a post on the WHO’s Weibo account, another person wrote, “Thank you for speaking truth.”

China’s no-tolerance covid policy aims to stop transmission of the coronavirus through lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines. Shanghai, home to 25 million people, has been under lockdown for almost six weeks as the country sees its worst outbreak since early 2020.

Faced with growing criticism from citizens forced into poorly equipped quarantine centers or stuck at home struggling to find food supplies and medical care, China’s top leaders declared last week that there would be no easing of zero-covid measures and that they would fight against all efforts to “distort, doubt or deny” the government’s policies.

Officials cite the country’s low vaccination rate among the elderly — 82 percent of adults over 60 years old have been fully vaccinated, and only a little more than half of residents over 80 are immunized — as one of the chief reasons it cannot allow the coronavirus to spread. The prevalence of vaccines that have proved to be less effective against the omicron variant has also made the population more vulnerable.

In a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers at Fudan University and in the United States estimated the omicron variant, if allowed to spread unchecked in China, could cause more than 1.5 million deaths between May and July.

The researchers said that a vaccination campaign in March had been “insufficient” to prevent a surge of omicron variant cases from overwhelming the hospital system, but mitigation policies such as vaccinations, antiviral therapies, testing and mask-wearing could reduce the death toll.

On Wednesday, Chinese state media ignored the WHO director’s comments, instead publishing articles citing the WHO’s May 5 report on excess deaths caused by the coronavirus between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021.

An article in the People’s Daily on Wednesday also did not mention the comment but defended the country’s approach by hailing its low death rate and economic growth, adding that China must “unswervingly adhere” to the dynamic-clearing policy.

Hu Xijin, former editor of the state-run Global Times, tried to dampen the attention paid to the WHO director’s remark.

He wrote on Weibo, “It is no secret that some people think China’s dynamic-clearing policy is unsustainable. The fact that the director general of the World Health Organization has publicly said this is not worth making a fuss.”

Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.