China’s Zero-Covid Approach Explained

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HONG KONG — The coronavirus has become widespread around much of the world, and many countries have settled on some combination of living with or ignoring its presence. But China, where it first appeared in late 2019, remains intent on eradicating the virus, carrying out extensive lockdowns and testing wherever new cases arise.

The country’s “zero-Covid” policy has been a drag on China’s economy, travel and everyday life. In some cases, lockdowns have led to widespread shortages of food and other daily necessities, such as in the northwestern city of Yining, also known as Ghulja. There, residents under lockdown for more than a month have complained about being forced to go hungry or endure woeful conditions in quarantine camps.

Such disruptions have spurred debate on whether “zero Covid” remains the best course for managing the risks posed by the pandemic. But Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has staked much of his political reputation on the policy and appears intent on sticking with it.

Here’s a look at how China handles the coronavirus, the reasons behind its methods and the future of the policy.

What is ‘zero Covid’?

China’s “dynamic zero-Covid” policy was born out of the effort to control the initial outbreak in the city of Wuhan. People who have the virus are isolated or sent to hospitals, depending on the severity of their cases. Anyone deemed a close contact, which can be very broadly defined, is also isolated.

When outbreaks are deemed severe enough, entire cities can be shut down, as Shanghai was for almost two months this spring. The southwestern city of Chengdu, with 21 million people, is now under lockdown, and many more people around the country are under some form of restriction.

Travel into China remains highly limited, although the quarantine period for those arriving from overseas has been halved to seven days followed by three days’ home isolation. The use of a contact-tracing app is required to enter public places. It issues health codes in the style of a traffic light, so crossing paths with an infected person or visiting an area deemed high risk can make someone’s health code turn from “green,” or safe, to “yellow,” potentially requiring quarantine and extensive testing. In some places regular Covid testing is required, regardless of potential exposure.

How is the policy promoted in China?

China’s Covid-control efforts are a signature policy of Mr. Xi at a key time politically. Next month he is widely expected to retain his paramount position at a Communist Party congress held once every five years, carrying him beyond the established two-term tenure for party general secretary.

Zero Covid has been framed against the failures to control the virus in the West, particularly the United States, where more than one million people have died from the outbreak. China has reported just 5,226 deaths among its population of 1.4 billion.

“The leadership and institutional superiority of each country will be judged by its response to the pandemic,” Mr. Xi said in a speech last year. “Time and trends are on our side, which is the source of our resolve and vigor, and why we are determined and confident.”

Why are such strict measures needed?

Beyond the political importance of zero Covid to China’s leadership, practical considerations have made it difficult to pull back on coronavirus controls. China has held off importing vaccines, including the mRNA vaccines made abroad that have been most effective, while it develops its own. Residents do not have natural immunity, as the virus has spread far less than in other countries.

China has also had difficulties in vaccinating older people. That was particularly a problem this year in Hong Kong, which had largely managed to keep the coronavirus at bay until thousands were killed by an Omicron surge that started in February. Many of those who died were older residents who had not been vaccinated out of excessive concerns about side effects.

Does the public support zero Covid?

China’s efforts to control the virus have been a great hardship for millions and a tremendous inconvenience for millions more. People undergoing lockdowns often complain of struggling to get food or other necessities. In the southern city of Guiyang, where areas have been under lockdown this week, the local authorities apologized to residents of one district, acknowledging they had not been given sufficient supplies.

Some cases of lockdown overkill are even more extreme, including cases of people who have been turned away by hospitals out of fear they may be infected, or residents being forbidden to flee their buildings during an earthquake in Sichuan Province this week.

Still, many Chinese people have expressed support for, or at least acquiescence to, the control measures. The state news media emphasizes the death and suffering brought on by Covid in the United States and other countries and portrays strict prevention policies as the only alternative to disaster. In addition, heavy censorship and the risk of punishment for questioning policies have quieted any voices of opposition.

What is zero Covid’s future?

Chinese officials signaled earlier this year that they wanted to ease the heavy-handed approach to fighting the virus, particularly as the economic impacts have become clearer and the Omicron variant has proved less deadly than previous variants. But suggestions of a new approach ended with the Shanghai outbreak in the spring. Now lockdowns appear to be increasingly common.

As many as 291 million people are now affected by lockdowns or other control measures, the investment bank Nomura estimated this week, up from 161 million the previous week. “The picture is not pretty, as China continues to battle the broadest wave of Covid infections thus far,” Nomura analysts said.

Zixu Wang contributed reporting.

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