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The world tries to move beyond COVID-19. China may stand in the way

  • >> Alexandra Stevenson, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-05-14 09:56:21 BdST

Quarantine workers outside a neighbourhood under lockdown due to COVID-19 cases in Shanghai on Monday, Mar 14, 2022. Qilai Shen/The New York Times

As the rest of the world learns to live with COVID-19, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, wants his country to keep striving to live without it — no matter the cost.

China won a battle against its first outbreak in Wuhan, Xi said last week, and “we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai,” he added, referring to the epicentre of the current outbreak in China.

But pressure is mounting for a change to the zero-COVID-19 strategy that has left Shanghai at a standstill since March, kept hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens under lockdown nationwide and is now threatening to bring Beijing to a halt.

This week, the World Health Organization called China’s current pandemic strategy “unsustainable.” An economist summarised it as “zero movement, zero GDP.” Multinational companies have grown wary of further investments in the country.

For more than two years, China kept its COVID-19 numbers enviably low by doggedly reacting to signs of an outbreak with testing and snap lockdowns.

More transmissible variants like omicron threaten to dent that success, posing a dilemma for Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. Harsher lockdowns have been imposed to keep infections from spreading, stifling economic activity and threatening millions of jobs.

Yet abandoning the strategy risks a surge in deaths, especially among the country’s tens of millions of unvaccinated older people. Researchers this week warned of a “tsunami” of deaths if the virus surged unchecked, leaving China’s fragile national hospital system overwhelmed and raising the possibility of social unrest.

Fearing any dissent during a politically important year for Xi, China’s censors have moved quickly to muffle calls for a change in course on COVID-19. The head of the WHO, whose recommendations China once held up as a model, was silenced this week when he called on the country to rethink its strategy.

To date, the coronavirus has claimed 569 lives and infected about 777,565 people since March 1, according to official statistics. If unchecked, the outbreak could lead to 112 million infections and nearly 1.6 million deaths between now and July, according to a study from researchers at Fudan University in Shanghai and Indiana University in the United States.

Investors and business leaders worry that China’s rigid adherence to its zero-COVID-19 policy could send the economy into free fall, and economists are concerned that the lockdowns will have a major impact on growth.


©2022 The New York Times Company