China: Zero-Covid failed. But relaxing is not a solution either

pandemic control
Goodbye Zero Covid? China’s strategy has failed, but easing is currently not a solution either

A man walks through almost empty streets in Beijing

China is relaxing – but the streets in some places remain deserted

© Andy Wong/AP/DPA

The government in Beijing is moving away from its zero Covid course. The decision was urgently needed and yet a debacle is looming. Because China is anything but prepared for easing.

China was at a standstill at the end of November – despite the great turmoil. On the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, people demanded a free life without corona restrictions, even sometimes without the dictator Xi. For the Chinese government, it was a moment of shock: on the one hand, because the citizens rebelled against a policy that they had previously supported willingly for three years. On the other hand, the number of infections rose again. Even China experts dared not predict how the government in Beijing would behave.

A week later, the central government is now presenting a ten-point plan for easing. For Nadine Godehardt from the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, this is the signal that the Chinese zero-Covid strategy has failed. “Which doesn’t mean that the strategy was wrong from the start,” the political scientist and China expert concedes star a.

But after three years, that no longer works. “The central government has now realized that the zero-Covid strategy should not be implemented at any price, but that there are different regional situations and it is therefore time to relax,” says Genia Kostka, political scientist at Freie Universität Berlin. had previously Beijing loosening announced. “But that simplified the situation, especially for those arriving from abroad,” says Kostka. Now the easing affects Chinese citizens directly.

Infected people without symptoms or with a mild course of the disease can isolate themselves at home, so they no longer have to go to the quarantine centers set up by the state. After a week you can test yourself free with a PCR test. Close contacts must isolate themselves at home for five days before they can test themselves. In the future, lockdowns will only relate to buildings, residential units, floors or households and negative ones corona-Tests only have to be presented in medical facilities and schools.

China’s government cooperative – for citizens, business and power

There is no question that the protests of the past week have contributed to this. From Kostka’s point of view, however, the Chinese government has not caved in. She prefers to speak of “responsive authoritarianism”. The term from political experts describes a phenomenon according to which the social pressure for change is tolerated by the government in order not to further threaten its own legitimacy. Through the protests, the central government understood that people only support the corona measures to a limited extent. “At the same time, there was growing fear that the protests could spread and that it could be about issues such as freedom of expression. That’s why people try to be cooperative,” Kostka explains the situation in the People’s Republic.

Economic pressure may also have contributed to the political shift. Due to the strict corona measures, Chinese foreign trade collapsed massively in November. The country imported almost eleven percent less than in November 2021. According to customs, this is the sharpest drop since May 2020. of China Meanwhile, exports fell by almost nine percent – the highest drop since February 2020. “In the medium term, China’s economy is still confronted with a structural downturn,” analyzes the World Bank. The reason for this is not only the slow easing, but also inflation and the Ukraine war.

Relax, but at what cost?

Even if some Chinese test centers are already closing and restaurants are opening for them: the country is still a long way from the number of people and traffic that were known from the time before the pandemic. Kostka also expects Beijing to continue to be willing to enforce tough lockdowns. Because the relief actually comes at the wrong time. For a few weeks, China has been overwhelmed by the largest wave of infections since the pandemic began – even if the absolute numbers are low in international comparison. The Health Commission reported on Wednesday about 25,000 new infections in one day. The numbers have been falling for days after peaking at around 40,000 in late November.

But even a small number of seriously ill Corna patients could overwhelm the country of 1.4 million souls, experts fear. Only four intensive care beds per 100,000 people are currently available, health authorities say. From Godehardt’s point of view, the advantage that the Chinese government gained through its strict corona course at the beginning of the pandemic remained unused. “China’s basic problem has by no means been solved with the easing,” says the China expert. Xi’s government is thus accepting the increasing number of cases. And that of all times in the winter months, when the incidences always tend to increase.

Months ago, researchers at Sanghai Fudan University warned in an article for the journal “Nature Medicine” that more than 1.5 million Chinese could die if the corona measures are lifted and there are no appropriate medicines. According to the calculations, however, the number of deaths could fall to the level of seasonal flu if all older people were vaccinated and antiviral drugs were used.

Why no vaccination?

But that is not the case. For fear of side effects, older people have so far been vaccinated less. Only 40 percent of people over the age of 80 have received a booster shot. In addition, China has so far only approved its own vaccines, which have to be vaccinated three times. “But obviously they don’t seem to be working very well, otherwise China wouldn’t have continued to follow strict guidelines lockdowns and put in place a zero-Covid strategy,” says Timo Ulrichs, professor at Akkon University and an expert in global health star. Although further Chinese vaccines were approved on Tuesday, it is unclear whether these are adapted active ingredients.

It is also problematic that China has prevented numerous infections with its zero-Covid strategy. The population is therefore largely “immune naive”. “A zero-infection strategy only works for pathogens that can be completely suppressed. But the ever-new variants of the coronavirus are becoming more and more contagious, so that’s no longer an option,” says Ulrichs.

This leaves the country with only controlled loosening. On the other hand, it remains a mystery why a regime that forces its citizens into lockdowns does not introduce compulsory vaccination. For most health experts, vaccination is still the best way to prevent further waves of the pandemic. For Godehardt it is therefore clear: “Opening now without massive vaccination is a health social experiment.” Without prepared easing, China’s government does not risk the next popular uprising – but maybe the next standstill.

Sources:CNN, Foundation Science and PoliticsChina Daily“, “Nature Medicine“, with material from DPA and AFP

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