By P.K. Balachandran
Colombo, December 5 (Ceylon Today): China has reduced the severity of the lockdowns and other restrictions associated with the bid to rid the country of COVID-19 through its Zero-COVID policy. But it is unlikely to give up the lockdowns entirely or even substantially, despite the heavy economic losses it is suffering and the spread of public protests against the regime’s insensitiveness to the people’s suffering.
Justifying the Zero-COVID policy, President Xi Jinping told the Communist party Congress on October 16: “In responding to the sudden outbreak of COVID-19, we put the people and their lives above all else, worked to prevent both imported cases and domestic resurgences, and tenaciously pursued a dynamic Zero-COVID policy. In launching an all-out people’s war to stop the spread of the virus, we have protected the people’s health and safety to the greatest extent possible and made tremendously encouraging achievements in both epidemic response and economic and social development.”
Xi said that this, though China’s economy had been badly hit by the lockdowns and restrictions and was unlikely to improve noticeably in the foreseeable future.
Between 1980 and 2020, China’s economy showed an annual growth rate of 9%. But in 2022–23, the IMF expects it to grow by less than 4%.
However, thanks to the public agitations against the strict regulations, several cities have loosened restrictions. But ending the Zero-COVID policy would bring its own challenges, both Chinese and Western warn.
It is stated that because of the strict regimen, only a small proportion of the population in China (under 400,000) has been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The government is also aware that immunity from vaccines is likely to have waned, and boosters are hard to sell, especially to older people over 60, says an account in the scientific website www.nature.com.
The website points out that a resurgence of cases in November had led to an all-time pandemic high of 71,000 daily recorded cases on November 29. This upsurge has been driven largely by the BF.7 Omicron sub-variant, it said.
“Modelling studies suggest that if China were to lift strict restrictions now, Omicron could infect between 160 million and 280 million people — resulting in some 1.3 million to 2.1 million deaths, largely among unvaccinated older adults,” the website reports.
Not Enough ICUs
Surprisingly, China does not have enough ICUs. When the infection was at its peak, the demand for ICUs was 15 times the current capacity, according to a study published in Nature Medicine on May 1. Vaccine coverage is higher now, but not enough to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, is quoted as saying.
One of the main reasons for the high rate of infection is the reluctance of older people (above 60) to take the vaccine, especially the third booster vaccine. It is reported that Xi Jinping sympathizes with senior citizens on this issue. He knows that the Chinese are very scared of getting infected and understands their caution.
However, given the comparatively low effectiveness of the China-made vaccines, the third booster dose is essential. According to the Nature Medicine study, China could reduce deaths by 61% if it gave the third dose to all eligible adults aged 60 or older. But so far, just 69% of people in that age category, and only 40% of those aged 80 or older — have received a third dose.
One way to encourage people to get a third dose could be to relax restrictions for those who do, such as giving them access to public spaces, it is suggested.
In September, China approved an inhalable version of the vaccine made locally by CanSino Biologics based in Tianjin. This version is now available to residents living in some large cities. Chinese manufacturers are also conducting late-stage clinical trials of Omicron-specific vaccines and ones that use mRNA technology. These could offer better protection than the vaccines that are currently used in China.
Another useful strategy would be to stockpile antiviral drugs, train more medical staff and increase the number of hospital beds. The Nature Medicine study suggests that China could reduce deaths by 89% by treating everyone who has COVID-19 symptoms with the antiviral drug Paxlovid.
Can Modify Quarantine Rules
Right now in China, those infected with COVID-19, and their close contacts, have to quarantine in designated facilities. A transition away from Zero COVID would mean allowing close contact and infected people with mild symptoms or no symptoms, to care for themselves at home. The system should allow close contacts to work if they test negative on a rapid antigen test. This would help to ensure that health-care services continue to function.
The government would also need to change the tone of its public messaging to alleviate panic, fear and stigma around COVID-19. This is very much needed because the Zero-COVID policy is unsustainable in the long run.