After China detected locally-transmitted Omicron infections in capital Beijing, the financial center Shanghai, and Guangdong, where the southern technology center of Shenzhen is located, it doubled down on its "zero-COVID" strategy.
The country where the COVID-19 infection was first detected in 2019 is now among the last places still hewing to "zero Covid", placing millions under quarantine even as The Lunar New Year and winter Olympics approach.
The Lunar New Year holiday, an event marked by mass travel as millions return home from urban centers to attend large family gatherings, begins in two weeks on February 1. The Beijing Winter Olympics are slated to begin later that week on February 4.
How is China maintaining 'zero COVID-19 cases'?
Local governments are ramping up targeted measures as part of the COVID Zero approach. One of China’s key strategies is mass testing entire city population multiple times to root out undetected spread.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
Unlike softer lockdown elsewhere, people in China can be banned from leaving their buildings or forced to remain inside hotel rooms if they are considered high-risk contacts.
In Shanghai, a major transit point that has seen a spike in "imported" infections in recent weeks, authorities recently sealed off office blocks, department stores and a tea shop where two people who tested positive for COVID had worked. Several schools in the city have closed early for the holiday.
The historic city of Xi'an, home to the famed Terracotta Warriors, was locked down in December, forcing its 13 million residents indoors after around 150 cases were detected. The similarly sized city of Zhengzhou tested every resident after just 11 cases, reported AFP.
Many local governments have already advised residents not to leave town unnecessarily trips during the holiday. China has also cancelled scores of inbound international flights in recent weeks due to passenger infections.
Mandatory track-and-trace apps mean close contacts are usually detected and quarantined quickly.
As for the approaching Olympics, the Chinese government said that the athletes will need to be vaccinated or face a long quarantine take tests daily and wear masks when not competing or training. Spectators from overseas won’t be allowed. As for local fans, Beijing organizers say they’re finalizing rules for their attendance. Even if some fans are allowed in Beijing, their presence will be muted. Everyone is being asked to clap instead of shouting or singing, as had been the plan in Tokyo.
Impact of the strategy
The policies already in place have undercut private consumption, dampening tourism and restaurant spending over the past two years. The rise in omicron cases is likely to further curtail travel ahead of the Lunar New Year, with many cities asking people not to travel.
“China’s Zero Covid strategy is still quite a big restraining factor on consumption, and it doesn’t look promising for the first quarter either,” news agency Associated Press quoted Liu Peiqian, China economist at NatWest Group Plc as saying. “Retail sales are likely to be sluggish for a while.”
Locked-down communities have complained of poor access to food, supplies and medical treatment. Meanwhile, migrant workers have been left stranded from families for months due to onerous travel rules and restrictions. Beside, social media users voiced frustration over tightening rules in the run-up to the holiday. One Shanghai resident "almost didn't dare to leave home" because of the recent lockdowns, she wrote on Weibo.
What medical experts say
China has "backed itself into a corner", Yanzhong Huang, a global health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a US think tank, told Reuters.
"Beijing seems to be confident that stringent pandemic control measures will still work," said Huang.
"But with a large population that does not have immunity against COVID-19, it should be easy for this new variant to quickly multiply and spread in China."
Will China ever reopen?
"China certainly has shown it is feasible to continue the zero COVID strategy almost indefinitely," Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University, told news agency AFP.
International tourism is non-existent and the government has said it will not renew expiring Chinese passports unless the holder has a good reason for travel.
The country will not reopen until at least after the upcoming Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing, with the government anxiously guarding the capital and tightening restrictions ahead of the Games.
Those who question "zero Covid" have faced a nationalistic backlash. Prominent Chinese medical expert Zhang Wenhong wrote in July that countries must eventually "learn to coexist with the virus" -- prompting attacks from online trolls.
"Letting the virus in could be risky for President Xi Jinping as he seeks a third term in October after billing himself as a leader that will always keep China safe."
"When it does come, the transition may not be easy because Chinese society has gotten quite used to a low level of transmission," University of Oxford's Thomas Hale told AFP.
China's National Health Commission on January 18 reported 243 COVID-19 cases in various cities including 3,494 patients still receiving treatment, of whom 15 were in severe condition. So far 4,636 have died as a result of the virus in China since 2019, the Commission said.(With agency inputs)