It’s been two years since we first started hearing news out of China about a new virus. The pictures from Wuhan, where the first Covid-19 outbreak was detected, looked straight out of a disaster movie: deserted highways, shuttered storefronts, rows of hospital beds filled with patients who couldn’t breathe, and small armies of government workers in hazmat suits disinfecting the streets.
The trauma and shame of that first outbreak spurred Chinese leaders to do everything in their power to stop Covid from spreading. And for most of the pandemic, their “zero-Covid” strategy was wildly successful at containing infections.
We have come full circle: the country where the pandemic started, that had the worst experience in those first few months but did the best job thereafter, looks like it will do the worst again over the coming year. This time the problem won’t be uncontrolled illness and death, but overzealous efforts to keep infections near zero disrupting life for hundreds of millions and hurting the world’s primary engine of economic growth.
As Covid started spreading around the world in 2020, most nations tried to restrict the movements of their citizens, and many used partial or full lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus. But none could do that as effectively as China, a country uniquely suited for implementing draconian quarantines, widespread testing and contact tracing, aggressive lockdowns, and tight border restrictions.
The lockdowns paid off quickly as hospitalizations and deaths plummeted, the economy rebounded, and the Chinese were able to go back out and get on with their lives faster than most other people around the world. Last winter, one year into the pandemic, as the ICUs in many countries were overflowing, Wuhan residents were going to nightclubs and riding crowded buses.
At the same time, China developed its own vaccines. The plan was to immunize everyone (over 83% of the population is fully vaccinated) and then start lifting restrictions, thus emerging from the pandemic with a healthy population, a strong economy, and bragging rights over China’s adversaries in the West.
The Chinese government (and much of the population) took great pride in the success of its zero-Covid policies. Beijing hailed it as evidence of how much better its approach was than that employed by all the other countries devastated by the pandemic—including every wealthy democracy. Implicitly, Beijing also saw this as vindication of the superiority of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and of Xi Jinping’s own leadership skills.
2021 brought surprises.
Before Delta, China had experienced a few small outbreaks, but they were quickly contained. Then last summer, the outbreaks started getting bigger and more frequent (even though they were still tiny compared to the rest of the world’s), requiring stronger and more urgent responses. China rang in the new year with a complete lockdown of the northwest city of Xi’an and its 13 million residents in response to nearly 1,900 local cases of Delta.
Now, new cases are popping up in Tianjin, a port city of 14 million people bordering Beijing—where the Winter Olympics are due to begin in three weeks. Authorities have locked the city down and begun a mass testing campaign requiring that all residents post a negative test result before they can access any public services, including transportation.
Notably, unlike earlier outbreaks, this one features community spread of the Omicron variant, which has set records all over the world due to the ease with which it jumps from one person to the next. A few of these Omicron cases appear to have already traveled to the city of Anyang, which has just now placed its 5 million residents under complete lockdown.
Beijing is still slated to host the Olympics next month, with plans for a strict “bubble” and heavily monitored quarantines to keep the entire event Covid-free. The Omicron outbreak in Tianjin, which is only 62 miles from the capital, makes this even harder. Not just because of the strain’s high rate of transmission, but also because Chinese vaccines, which were created using more conventional technology than the mRNA approach used by Pfizer and Moderna, have proven virtually ineffective at stopping Omicron infections. With all eyes on the country, what China hoped to be a triumphant turn as host country is set to become a spectacle of lockdowns and restrictions.
The nature of the pandemic has changed. A policy that worked incredibly well in 2020, when reducing cases meant preventing deaths and hospitalizations, is no longer fit for purpose. Faced against a much more transmissible but less severe variant, China should recognize the futility of zero-Covid and instead focus on mitigating the public health consequences of Omicron.
But there’s a couple of reasons why Beijing will double down on its zero-Covid strategy even as it proves less effective at stopping infections.
First, most Chinese lack antibodies against Omicron. Keeping the country locked down for two years has made it riskier to open back up because very few have gotten the virus before. And while Chinese vaccines are likely to offer decent protection against severe disease and death, their limited ability to prevent transmission means that opening up would still have severe health consequences for millions. Pfizer and Moderna work fairly well against the latest strain but the Chinese government has refused to license either of them. China has been developing its own mRNA vaccine, but it won’t be ready until much later this year.
Second, Xi Jinping is fully invested in zero-Covid, having hitched his political fate to its earlier success. This makes it extremely hard for him to change course at least until after the 20th Party Congress in October-November, when Xi is expected to win a precedent-breaking third term. Ditching the zero-Covid policy before then would be tantamount to admitting error. Such a political calculus creates intense pressure at all levels of the government to keep infections low, and in fact many lower-level officials have already been fired over small outbreaks.
In short, Beijing is convinced that they have no choice but to stick to zero-Covid, at least until after the Party Congress and once indigenous mRNA vaccines have been rolled out. This cartoon from China’s state-run newspaper responding to our prediction that zero-Covid will fail in 2022 speaks volumes:
Chinese leaders still believe their policy is a success, and that the US response has been a disaster (with good reason). But it's a different pandemic now, and they aren’t even trying to pivot. So long as Beijing stays wedded to its zero-Covid strategy, where even one case is one too many, the future looks like Xi’an and Tianjin and Anyang: one mass testing campaign and lockdown after another, as officials play whack-a-mole with the virus and take drastic measures to try to snuff out even the smallest of outbreaks.
With a government that refuses to adapt to an evolving pandemic, China will be forced to mount wider and more severe lockdowns in an effort to contain the highly transmissible Omicron, keeping case numbers and severe illness low at the cost of growing disruptions to domestic consumption, manufacturing and shipping operations, and economic growth.
But because of China’s unique position in the world economy, lockdowns and closures won’t just affect just their own business. Before the pandemic, China was the world’s fastest-growing major economy, making the building blocks for just about everything: our TVs, computers, phones, cars, and medications. This year has already seen shortages of many goods and rising prices.
More lockdowns in China means fewer and more expensive products globally. The lockdown in Xi’an, a microchip manufacturing hub, forced companies like Samsung to scramble to source the parts they needed to make their phones elsewhere. Meanwhile, Tianjin is a major port city, which means that huge cargo ships need to get loaded and unloaded, and trucks need to get in and out of the city to take products where they need to go. Every time new restrictions are imposed, the whole manufacturing and shipping chain gets slowed down. And everything that makes it harder for businesses to do business makes the things we buy more expensive.
The initial success of China’s zero-Covid strategy and the limited effectiveness of its vaccines against Omicron will force Beijing to take increasingly harsh measures to keep infections at bay, even as zero-Covid policies grow less effective and more costly in terms of domestic and global economic disruptions.
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