China won’t give up on its COVID zero policy. As a Beijing lockdown looms, experts explain why

Home Australia News China won’t give up on its COVID zero policy. As a Beijing lockdown looms, experts explain why
China won’t give up on its COVID zero policy. As a Beijing lockdown looms, experts explain why

“Go hard, go early” is a phrase many Australians became familiar with as states justified the use of lockdowns to extinguish COVID-19 cases in the first two years of the pandemic.

But with the Omicron variant being far more virulent than previous strains, and vaccines proving effective in reducing the severity of illness, Australia, like much of the world, has abandoned the idea of eradicating infections.

China, however, is an outlier.

The pursuit of “COVID zero” has recently led to a brutal lockdown in Shanghai, now into its fourth week, that has ignited scenes of unrest and distress rarely seen so publicly in the authoritarian country.

Despite showing little sign of success, the local government has shown no intention of softening the lockdown.

A wrought iron gate locked together with a chain
This apartment complex in a wealthy part of Beijing is chained up and locked down due to people inside being infected. (ABC News: Paddy Fok )

This week, supermarkets in Beijing were hit with panic buying after only a few dozen confirmed cases stoked fears a lockdown was imminent.

Apartment complexes have been locked up and barricaded due to infections inside.

Not only are the lockdowns expensive, but investors are also wary of China’s aggressive strategy, with the share market performing poorly this year and the local currency, the yuan, hitting a 17-month low.

So, why are China’s rulers still determined to use lockdowns in the pursuit of COVID zero?

“It’s the only playbook they have,” Chang Chuan Chan, a health policy expert at Taiwan National University, explained.

“It’s become a [matter of] pride for Chinese leaders. They thought they can prove there’s a way to eliminate the cases.”

A familiar playbook to tackle viruses  

Professor Chan said the aggressive lockdown strategy was something China learned when it tackled the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

A group of masked Chinese people walk past windows, from which masked people watch them
When SARS emerged in 2002, China ordered intermittent lockdowns with great success. (Reuters: Bobby Yip )

The disease, which was first identified in South China in 2002, spread to 32 countries and regions, resulting in the confirmed deaths of 813 people. 

And when a mysterious illness, which we now know as COVID-19, appeared years later in Wuhan, the Chinese bureaucracy deployed a similar tactic.

“It was so successful in Wuhan after 76 days’ lockdown, even though the cost was very high,” Professor Chan said.

China failed to stop the disease escaping to other countries and triggering a global pandemic, but at home a mix of quick and aggressive lockdowns, mass compulsory testing and hard international borders kept the virus at bay.

China was able to escape the worst of the outbreak experienced in the US, Europe, and other parts of Asia.

After their initial embarrassment, the relative success was something politicians and bureaucrats relished.

“It’s all because of where this started,” Professor Chan said.

“We all know it started in Wuhan.”

You view an empty six-lane bridge apart from two pedestrians with high rise buildings rising up behind them.
The city of Wuhan, the likely birthplace of COVID-19, was locked down for 76 days in 2020 to snuff out an outbreak. (AP: Arek Rataj)

But now those same politicians and bureaucrats are failing to accept health expert advice that the new variant cannot be contained like the old. 

Professor Chan said there now needed to be a more nuanced approach that included more use of rapid antigen tests, more vaccines for the elderly, making regular testing available, and enabling mRNA vaccines to be used as booster shots.

“North, south, east, west, there’s so many big cities having the cases simultaneously,” Professor Chan said.

“It’s really very difficult for them to repeat the same success story they had in Wuhan.

“I hope the political leaders in China can pay attention to the experts’ opinion.”

China’s ‘big faux pas’ 

The type of stubbornness in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seen to now be hampering China’s COVID-19 strategy may have roots that stretch further back than the SARS epidemic.

A line of people in Beijing, all wearing masks
Beijing has announced plans to test nearly 20 million residents.(ABC News: Paddy Fok)

Veteran China expert David Zweig, a professor emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the idea of “man conquering nature” dated back to the founder of modern China, chairman Mao Zedong.

“Mao always had this view that man must conquer nature,” he said. 

“There was this sense, I think, that human beings and also the CCP could organise society in an effective way to defeat COVID.”

This idea drove the Great Leap Forward, when the Communist leadership pushed an aggressive social and economic campaign to rapidly develop the country, often causing great suffering to the country’s people.

“Mao’s view drove him in the 1950s and 1960s to mobilise society, to manage society, and to direct society in a way that it could defeat nature — building dykes or terraced fields where they destroyed nature, [the] growing of wheat where it shouldn’t have been,” Professor Zweig said.

A portrait of Chairman Mao with masked people in the foreground
One of Mao Zedong’s most influential slogans was: “Man must conquer nature.” (Reuters: Tingshu Wang)

The sheen of China’s success has come off in recent weeks.

An outbreak in Hong Kong overwhelmed local health authorities, forcing sick, elderly patients to wait on stretchers outside hospitals.

The harsh lockdown in Shanghai has led to food shortages, young children and babies being separated from their parents, and viral videos of distressed residents trying to flee or resisting government authorities.

Residents in Beijing, most of whom must undergo three rounds of testing, are worried the lessons from Shanghai will only encourage authorities to go harder, sooner.

An older man in a face mask holds hands with an older woman as they walk past a temple in Beijing
Experts say Chinese authorities wasted time that could have been used to vaccinate the elderly in higher numbers. (Reuters: Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Professor Zweig said China was paying the price for failing to adequately vaccinate the elderly while cases were low.

He believes opening up now would prove disastrous.

“Everyone knows in Hong Kong the stupidity for not doing that,” he said.

“To allow Omicron to flow freely within the society would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of elderly [people]. Look at the number of people who were dying in Hong Kong.”

“That’s the big faux pas. That’s the big mistake.”

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