Before the detection of omicron, Beijing’s steadfast commitment to a policy of eliminating the coronavirus had made the country an outlier amid a global shift toward gradually opening borders and mitigating the spread as vaccination rates rose.
Now, as nations reverse gear and reinstate border restrictions, Chinese officials are claiming, with a hint of schadenfreude, that their approach was right all along, brushing aside the idea of drastic changes to combat omicron.
Zhong Nanshan, a leading infectious-disease expert and government adviser, said in an interview with local media that China is unlikely to take significant action while it waits for more test results. An official statement on omicron released by the National Health Commission on Monday declared that China’s approach for preventing a relapse still works.
The delta variant’s arrival in China this year sparked a debate among Chinese experts about whether it was time to abandon “zero covid” and shift to a mitigation strategy to avoid economic and social disruption every time the virus breached the country’s defenses.
Complaints of rolling lockdowns upending daily life in hard-hit locations like the southwestern border town of Ruili fueled a sense that China would soon need to accept coexistence with the virus.
Although 76 percent of the country’s population is fully vaccinated, China is likely to keep its zero-covid strategy “until officials are more confident that widespread infection wouldn’t strain health care resources or until it becomes untenable in the face of a more transmissible variant,” Mark Williams, chief East Asia economist at Capital Economics, said in a note Monday.
A study released by China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention last week weighed strongly in favor of not changing course when it found that adopting a mitigation strategy would result in severe cases exceeding the early 2020 peak within one to two days and have “a devastating impact on the medical system of China and cause a great disaster.”
“For the time being, we are not ready to embrace ‘open-up’ strategies,” it concluded.
“The policy of encircling and eliminating covid is an indispensable tool for China to keep the pandemic at bay,” Wu Zunyou, the Chinese CDC’s chief epidemiologist, told a conference organized by financial media outlet Caijing on Sunday.
Wu estimated that China had prevented up to 260 million infections and 3 million deaths by refusing to adopt the more flexible approach taken by countries such as the United States and Britain.
Strict quarantine on entry into China and the zero-tolerance policy should stay in place until at least winter or spring, because China cannot afford to “overturn” its past successes by making a mistake, he said.
For some Chinese commentators, being right about covid policy is more than a victory for public health; it’s a question of competing political systems, and the omicron variant only serves to bolster propaganda claims of the Chinese Communist Party’s superiority.
As the idea of living with the virus has become more common in Europe and North America, “Western media have maliciously smeared China’s ‘dynamic zero covid’ policy, believing that the costs of this approach were too high and could not be sustained. This point of view is totally incorrect,” a commentary in the People’s Daily Overseas Edition, an official party newspaper, said on Tuesday.
To be effective, China’s mass lockdowns, swab testing and contact tracing required ensuring public buy-in, but “Western countries’ comparative difficulty in implementing quarantine policies, a major setback to epidemic prevention, is fundamentally due to differences in governance systems,” wrote Zhou Xinfa, the article’s author, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Criticism after omicron’s arrival of wealthy countries’ “vaccine nationalism” is also a potential boon for China’s ambition to be seen as a leading provider of doses to low- and middle-income countries.
At the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that an additional 1 billion doses of Chinese vaccines would be provided to Africa within the next year, including 600 million as donations, in an effort to “heal the immunity gap” on the continent.
That would represent a significant increase from the 107 million doses delivered so far, according to Bridge Consulting, a Beijing-based research firm.