Iin science fiction In a genre known as steampunk, impressive creativity has been applied to a strange task: imagining a future world using only Victorian technology. There are no silicon chips or lithium batteries in the steampunk world. Instead, heroes in frock coats pilot steam-powered flying machines made of canvas, wood and hissing copper tubing, or consult intricate clockwork computers. To understand China’s “zero COVID-19” policy, it’s helpful to think of it as a steampunk pandemic response.
The policy was born at a chaotic and dangerous moment for Communist Party leaders: the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan in early 2020. Despite the best efforts of censors, online videos of seriously ill patients in hospital corridors and body bags in cars parked across China. Horrified leaders know that hospitals in many parts of their country are no match for Wuhan, a city of 14 million people. Soon, officials cordoned off China and closed its borders. Temporary isolation hospitals have sprung up across the country. More and more smartphone apps have been rolled out to track the movement of the public and the status of the coronavirus in real time. Millions of epidemic guards enforced restrictions. High and low technology combine to create something remarkable: a modern version of a 19th-century quarantine system like the one Victorian doctors might have used to respond to a tuberculosis outbreak before antibiotics.
From the start, China’s zero-coronavirus response has followed its own logic. In places like the US or Europe, governments have worked hard to “flatten” the infection curve. Their goal is to slow the growth of each new covid wave to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. China’s ambition is to have no cases and no curves.
In the first phase of the zero-coronavirus policy, officials used travel restrictions, mass testing and quarantines to stop the spread of the virus. Given China’s large population and weak healthcare system, this was a reasonable but costly policy that averted many deaths. It’s also popular because life is relatively normal for many in this China-sized bubble. Advocacy chiefs highlighted the contrast with soaring casualties in the US, UK and other wealthy countries.
Earlier, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore also followed the COVID-19 elimination policy, but with differences. These countries have used their zero-coronavirus policies to buy time until they are ready to live with the virus with the help of effective vaccines and effective new antiviral drugs. China is not buying time with its policies.
Instead, once the virus breaches China’s defenses and outbreaks break out in many regions, China will enter a second phase, the so-called “dynamic zero coronavirus.” China has a nationwide system in place that can find every infected person within hours and isolate them, and then trace and isolate hundreds or even thousands of their close contacts. The “dynamic” bit means that it is not possible to avoid cases completely. Instead, our ambition is to break the waves quickly.
Alas, more contagious variants have been tested for this breakthrough approach. With the outbreak at hand, officials have locked down some areas for months.Lots of polymerase chain reaction Cities with millions of inhabitants are tested every day. The economic and human costs are enormous. Soochow Securities estimates that the cost of covid testing alone in China has reached 170 million yuan ($240 billion) this year, or about 1.5% of the country’s total. gross domestic productThe figure is equivalent to nearly half of all public education spending in China in 2020, and one expert says the figure is underestimated.
On Nov. 11, the government announced 20 reforms to make the zero-COVID-19 policy more precise and less costly, and ease international travel slightly. Local officials have been warned not to implement excessive and indiscriminate policies. Over the next few days, several cities appeared to be trying to reduce mass testing and loosen restrictions on movement. Some promotional messages have started to downplay the severity of covid. This has fueled speculation at home and abroad that China will abandon its zero-coronavirus policy, although the Chinese government denies this. People’s Daily and other official news media.
Three main explanations for these changes are self-explanatory.The first one, call it plan A, is that China’s leaders are trying to make the zero-coronavirus policy more sustainable.plan Second But despite official denials, an organized retreat from the policy is quietly underway.plan C There is no plan at all; it assumes that China is out of control and is crashing toward opening up.
plan Second least likely. An orderly exit requires long-term preparation. Instead, China wasted 2022. A comprehensive vaccination campaign, especially for the elderly, should have started months ago. Three locally-taken courses provide reasonable covid protection; only 68% of people over 60 have the full three. Giving everyone a fourth booster would make exits safer, but work on that has only just begun. Authorities should stockpile antiviral drugs and publish protocols for inevitable surges of infections, clarifying who should be hospitalized or treated with antivirals. As for the most effective for the Chinese, foreign mribonucleic acid When the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, suggested it recently, Mr. Xi showed little interest. Instead, Chinese leaders hinted at approving opportunities abroad for German expatriates. Finally, winter (when people are crammed indoors and viruses multiply) would be a stupid time to start opening.
The current outbreak is worrisome, but China has dealt with higher case numbers before, suggesting that the plan C Not yet available. Ben Cowling of the University of Hong Kong suggests that to spot a major shift in approach, watch what happens with mass testing, one of the two pillars of a zero-covid policy, along with isolating positive cases.remaining plans A. Party bosses appear to be tweaking their intricate virus-free machine to keep running, even though new scientific tools make it obsolete and it may not survive the incoming virus wave. This would be an act of self-harm. Steampunk makes for beautiful stories, but bad public policy. ■
Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
Xi Jinping Revises the Chinese Dream (November 10)
Chinese cities forgotten by the new crown (November 3)
China and US barely speaking despite looming crisis (October 27)
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