The world is trying to move beyond Covid. China can get in the way.

As the rest of the world learns to live with Covid-19, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, wants his country to continue striving to live without it, whatever the cost.

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

But pressure is mounting for a change from the zero-Covid strategy that has left Shanghai on a standstill since March, kept hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens under lockdown across the country and is now threatening to shut down Beijing..

This week, the World Health Organization called China’s current pandemic strategy “unsustainable.” An economist abstract as “zero movement, zero GDP” Multinational companies are wary of new investments in the country.

For more than two years, China has kept its Covid numbers at an enviable level by stubbornly reacting to signs of an outbreak with instant testing and lockdowns. The success has allowed the Communist Party to boast that it prioritized life over death in the pandemic, unlike western democracies where deaths from the virus have soared.

More transmissible variants like Omicron threaten to undermine that success, posing a dilemma for Mr. Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. Tougher lockdowns have been imposed to stop infections from spreading, stifle economic activity and threaten millions of jobs. Chinese citizens have become restless, pushing back against being forced to stay at home or moving to grim government-run isolation facilities.

Still, abandoning the strategy risks an increase 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 surges unchecked, leaving China’s fragile national hospital system overwhelmed and raising the possibility of social unrest.

Fearing any dissent in a politically important year for Mr Xi, Chinese censors moved quickly to stifle calls for a change of course on Covid-19. The head of the World Health Organization, whose recommendations China once held up as a model, was silenced this week when he called on the country to rethink its strategy.

Photographs and references to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, were quickly removed from the Chinese internet after the statement. The Foreign Office responded by calling Mr Tedros’ comments “irresponsible” and accusing the WHO of not having a “good understanding of the facts”.

China’s state-controlled media has also glossed over the draconian measures officials have rolled out to deal with the outbreaks. This week, as some Shanghai authorities erected new fences around quarantine zones, closed more homes and asked residents not to leave their apartments, state media painted a picture of a city slowly returning to the normal.

One article described the return of the “hustle and bustle of city life”, while another focused on statistics for the number of reopened stores.

But the rosy state media reports cannot hide a looming challenge that Mr. Xi faces.

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

“The picture is pretty grim, and the study clearly shows the huge importance of vaccinating and stimulating the elderly,” said Marco Ajelli, infectious disease modeler at Indiana University’s School of Public Health. , who contributed to the study.

According to the study, less than half of people aged 70 or over in Shanghai have received two injections. Across China, the number is 72%, a figure that health experts say should be 95% or higher. In dozens of cities where there have been outbreaks or partial shutdowns in anticipation of rising cases, resources have been directed to eradicating the virus rather than vaccinations.

Currently, vaccines available in China are not as potent as foreign vaccines available in other countries. Chinese vaccines use traditional technology that has been shown to be less effective than revolutionary mRNA technology. China said last year it was close to approving BioNTech, a German mRNA vaccine made in partnership with Pfizer, but that hasn’t happened. Several Chinese companies are in the testing phase of a local mRNA option, and China also recently approved for emergency use a Covid-19 antiviral pill made by Pfizer called Paxlovid.

Administering three vaccines, using antiviral therapies and offering more effective vaccines could help China find a path out of zero Covid, Ajelli said.

Investors and business leaders fear that China’s rigid adherence to its zero Covid policy could send the economy into a tailspin. “It is high time for the government to change its strategy,” said Fred Hu, a prominent Chinese investor. The benefits of zero Covid no longer outweigh the economic costs, he added. “To stick to the zero-Covid strategy would decimate its economy and undermine public trust.”

By one estimate, nearly 400 million people in 45 cities have been under some form of lockdown in China over the past month, representing $7.2 trillion in annual gross domestic product. Economists fear lockdowns will have a major impact on growth; an economist has warned that if lockdown measures remain in place for another month, China could slide into recession.

European and American multinationals said they were discussing ways to transfer some of their operations out of China. Big companies that increasingly depend on the Chinese consumer market for their growth are also sounding the alarm. Apple said it could see sales hit by $4 billion to $8 billion due to the lockdowns.

Howard Schultz, acting chief executive of Starbucks, said the company had “virtually no ability to predict our performance in China.”

Foreign investment has nearly dried up and some projects have been put on hold for more than two years because pandemic-related restrictions have made it virtually impossible for foreign executives to travel to China. When executives of multinational corporations appeal to senior Chinese officials, their appeals are met with silence, said Michael Hart, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.

“China has been very firm in its opinion that it has the right strategy and does not want people to criticize it,” Hart said.

Some of China’s top leaders have also started to share their worries about the economy. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang described the employment situation as “complicated and serious” as migrant workers and students struggle to find and keep jobs during the lockdowns.

Even as daily virus cases in Shanghai have been steadily declining, authorities have tightened measures in recent days following Mr. Xi’s call last week for a doubling. Authorities also began forcing entire residential buildings to self-isolate from the government if a single resident tested positive.

The new measures are tougher than those at the start of the pandemic and have come up against pockets of unrest, previously rare in China, where citizens have mostly supported the country’s pandemic policies.

In a video widely circulated online before it was taken down by censors, an exasperated woman screams as officials in white hazmat suits break down her door to take her to an isolation center. She protests and asks them to give her the proof that she tested positive. Finally, she takes her phone to call the police.

“If you called the police,” one of the men replies, “I’d still be the one coming.”

Isabelle Qian contributed to the reporting, and Claire Crazy contributed to the research.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: