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China’s Covid gamble

China’s Covid gamble

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After nearly three years, China has abandoned key parts of its flagship zero-covid policy.

After nearly three years, China has abandoned key parts of its contentious – zero-Covid policy. Across the country, many people breathed a sigh of relief. Others are not so sure. 

Is relaxing the country’s intensive covid strategy a risk? 

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Already makeshift hospitals have been torn down. Posters and signs about test centres are being removed. Even the term “zero-Covid policy” is suddenly missing from official statements…

“China has just announced a major nationwide easing of its zero covered policy a week after protests against the controls spread across the country.” 

BBC news clip

Earlier this month China entered a new stage in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

In a ten-point plan last week the country’s government detailed the relaxation of its hyper-strict policy: people with mild or no Covid symptoms will be able to quarantine at home instead of in centralised quarantine centres… there will be freer travel around the country… mass testing will be reduced… and lockdowns will be limited. 

This might still sound extreme to many in Europe, but it is a fundamental shift.

And it seems that the government has made a calculation: that, in the long run, allowing the virus to spread might be less risky than pursuing a policy that has caused increasing discontent across China. 

So: how did we get here?

***

For three years zero-Covid has been a signature policy of China’s president Xi Jingping. Chinese people were told that it was necessary to save lives – that it was the only option. And it became more than just a policy: it was a symbol of the superiority of China’s political system and way of handling the pandemic over Western democracy.   

Zero-Covid is an attempt to stop all Covid infections and eliminate the virus from China. Just a couple of positive covid tests could lockdown a city or a building, and people had to quarantine in state-run camps. 

The official death toll in China is just 5,200 – compared to over one million in the US. Though China has been accused of under-reporting its death rate.

But it’s hit the country’s economy hard. And the problem is… zero-Covid is also no longer working. The country reported its highest ever Covid infections last month. 

The turning point was a fire in which ten people died. 

[Clip: protests]

Locals blamed strict Covid restrictions: sayings that the people who died were trapped and weren’t able to flee to safety. 

[Clip: protests]

Protests grew into national demonstrations – and rare public calls for Xi Jinping to step down. Here’s Professor Steve Tsang, Director of the China Institute at SOAS, speaking to the BBC: 

Well, the timing of it will suggest quite clearly that it is part of the coordinated responses to the protest that happened a bit over a week ago. The Chinese government will deny that and they will say that this is because the situations change that Covid changed…”

Professor Steve Tsang, BBC News

The Chinese Community Party says the changes are because the omicron variant of Covid is not as severe as previous variants and so the dangers are reduced. 

It’s an abrupt shift in messaging. For months China’s ruling party has emphasised the severity of Omicron to justify the country’s strict policy – and, although the policy hasn’t been dismantled completely, it’s going to be tough to frame this pivot as anything other than a climbdown or an admission of failure.

Instead… it’s being presented as part of a planned transition. But is China making a dangerous calculation? 

***

For the Chinese protestors who want a complete end to the zero-Covid policy – it’s a moment for celebration. 

But not everyone in China is pleased about the decision. After three years of being told zero-Covid policy was the only way to save lives…. for many it’s a sudden – and scary – change. 

A mother and daughter who spoke to Sky News outside a medical clinic reveal the divide. 

[Clip: Daughter speaking to Sky News]

Although the daughter is saying that she thinks people are now less afraid… her mother interrupts the interview to disagree. 

[Clip: Mother interrupting]

She’s saying that it’s still dangerous for elderly people and children, and that the previous policy is better. 

Undoing the zero-Covid policy like this – seemingly without much forward planning or notice – is a huge gamble. 

Because there are now fewer Covid tests being carried out the official number of daily cases has dropped… but it’s likely that infections are spreading. 

And it doesn’t seem like the country is ready for the wave. With the focus on zero-Covid policies, vaccinations have taken a back seat: China is reluctant to use foreign-made vaccines which are most effective, and only 40 per cent of people over 80 have had their third vaccine, which is recommended with the Chinese vaccine. The country hasn’t increased intensive care capacity in hospitals or stockpiled antiviral medications. Even a small spike in severe cases could overwhelm medical professionals. 

If Covid rips through the country… experts warn a new variant is a possibility. The world will be holding its breath. 

This episode was written and mixed by Claudia Williams.