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China struggling to find a way out of zero-COVID policy

A staff member in a protective suit instructs people who are lining up for a throat swab test at a temporary COVID-19 testing center as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Beijing, China, January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

China’s “zero-COVID” policy has put it at odds with the rest of the world and is wreaking havoc on the economy, but an exit route remains elusive as officials worry about the healthcare system’s ability to cope and adapt to new strains.

The news: Last year, Chinese medical experts predicted that as infection rates in other countries fell, China would be able to ease its strict limits on movement and testing.

  • Those hopes were crushed when the highly transmissible Omicron variety emerged.
  • While some observers have labelled China’s policy as “unsustainable,” many local and international health professionals argue the government has little choice but to continue due to its underdeveloped health system.
  • Some even say that if Omicron is kept at away, China’s economy will be stronger than before.
  • Last week, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, urged China to “reconsider” its policy, saying it had become a “weight” on both the Chinese and world economies.
  • However, China is concerned that weakening its defences could cost it even more money, especially with a healthcare system that has lagged behind the rest of the country’s development.
People line up to get a throat swab test at a temporary COVID-19 testing center as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Beijing, China, January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

What’s going on: According to government figures, China had 4.7 million registered nurses at the end of 2020, or 3.35 per 1,000 inhabitants. There are approximately 3 million in the United States, or about 9 per 1,000 people.

  • China is likewise concerned about the possibility of new variations, especially since it refuses to import vaccines from other countries.
  • China’s vaccines appear to be less effective against Omicron, according to studies, and the country has yet to release its own mRNA version.
  • Even if Omicron was proven to be less deadly, it could still lead to an increase in the absolute number of deaths, and China must remain patient.
  • China has increased its public health warnings, advising citizens to disregard assertions that Omicron is no more dangerous than the flu and to remain watchful.

What they’re saying: On Wednesday, the official People’s Daily’s Global Times slammed international media for “mocking” China’s regulations, claiming that they saved lives.

  • It went on to say that foreign criticism was “based on unfounded or premature hope about the pandemic’s termination.”
  • Experts in China and abroad have also questioned if Omicron marks the pandemic’s last stage.
  • “SARS-CoV-2 will not magically turn into a malaria-like endemic infection where levels stay constant for long periods,” said Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Research Programme at the University of New South Wales’ Kirby Institute. 
  • “It will keep causing epidemic waves, driven by waning vaccine immunity, new variants that escape vaccine protection, unvaccinated pockets, births and migration,” she told Reuters.

What’s important: As a result of COVID-related supply delays, China’s economy is anticipated to decline, while lockdowns to contain internal breakouts put a damper on travel and consumption.

  • Hong Kong’s “zero-COVID” policy has thrown the Chinese-run city out of pace with other global financial centres, causing its economy to suffer.
  • Despite this, China’s economy has remained resilient, with GDP growth of 8.1 per cent last year beating expectations by a wide margin.
  • MacIntyre of the Kirby Institute said it wasn’t a “binary choice” between opening up and remaining isolated, adding there was “no need to surrender to the virus, as Australia is doing at the moment.”
  • She believes China will emerge stronger from the crisis, especially if COVID causes widespread cognitive impairment, organ damage, and other long-term diseases in other countries.
  • “If China keeps the virus largely under control, their population will be fit and healthy into the future, while the United States and Europe will be groaning under an unprecedented burden of chronic disease.” 
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