China has begun easing aspects of its strict and increasingly unpopular “zero-covid” policy after protests across the country increased political pressure on President Xi Jinping.
New rules the state council announced today will end many stringent testing and quarantine requirements, for example by allowing infected people with mild symptoms to isolate at home rather than at a government-run quarantine center. Nor will local officials be able to shut down entire blocks or districts as a quarantine measure, although locking down individual buildings will continue, the Wall Street Journal reported.
But public health experts don't see an easy way for China to end zero-covid without significant illness, suffering and death, writes Science Reporter Dan Vergano. The policy’s early success has turned into a long-term liability.
China’s frequent, large-scale lockdowns have halted outbreaks and saved lives — but they’ve also prevented widescale infections that would help build immunity in China’s population. Compounding the problem, Xi has relied on mediocre homegrown covid vaccines. And the virus has grown more infectious over time, raising doubts about how long the current approach will hold.
“China’s ‘Dynamic Zero-Covid’ strategy is unsustainable and will almost certainly fail over time,” said Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “SARS-CoV-2 is too infectious to be contained, especially with a population that has very little natural or vaccine-induced immunity. If China abruptly ends its zero-covid strategy, it would see an explosion of hospitalizations and deaths.”
Whatever loosening is coming may be too little, too late to hold off either more protests or the eventual overtaking of the pandemic throughout China, experts said, with implications both for the Chinese economy and geopolitics.
“China is, frankly, between a rock and a hard place,” said Victoria Fan, a senior fellow in global health at the Center for Global Development. The country “is in a situation not too different from 2020. It’s almost like a pre-vaccine moment for China,” she said.
Former zero-covid nations like Taiwan, Singapore and New Zealand have confronted difficult questions about how, whether and when to relax restrictions in the past year and a half, managing the transition with timely responses to outbreaks, backed up by hospital capacity lacking in China. “It’s hard to imagine they will vaccinate their way out now,” she added.
So what are China’s best options? As Dan writes, experts agree that importing Western mRNA vaccines – and boosting vaccination rates among China’s elderly, whose age increases their risk of severe illness and death – would be important first steps.
🩺 Read Dan’s full story here.