The zero-Covid policy has also allowed some forms of normalcy to return. Masks are required in public, but unless a city is in lockdown, people have been attending parties and eating in restaurants for most of the past two years, Amy notes.
When Covid began spreading in Wuhan, it seemed as if it might have the potential to weaken the Communist Party’s standing. Instead, China’s success at controlling Covid has turned into a public relations triumph for the regime. President Xi Jinping uses China’s management of the virus to bolster his global campaign for influence, arguing that China’s system of government works better than Western democracies do.
China’s maximalist approach has had harmful side effects.
Even modest outbreaks can lead local officials to place millions of people under lockdown, sometimes with terrible consequences. As our colleague Li Yuan has written:
In the northwestern city of Xi’an, hospital employees refused to admit a man suffering from chest pains because he lived in a medium-risk district. He died of a heart attack.
They informed a woman who was eight months pregnant and bleeding that her Covid test wasn’t valid. She lost her baby.
Two community security guards told a young man they didn’t care that he’d had nothing to eat after catching him out during the lockdown. They beat him up.
Lockdowns have also hurt Chinese businesses and the global economy. One reason that inflation has risen around the world is that Chinese factories and ports have been quick to shut down when there are nearby cases, disrupting supply chains.
Chinese officials maintain that zero Covid is still viable. If that’s correct, the approach may need to become even more aggressive, given that the Omicron variant is so contagious. China’s two major vaccines appear to provide significant protection against serious illness but little protection against infection.
China also has little natural immunity, unlike countries where the virus has spread widely. “That immunity gap between China and the outside world is only increasing,” Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told us. Some other countries that previously had zero-Covid strategies, like Singapore and New Zealand, have recently moved away from them.
China seems to face a choice “between short-term pain and long-term pain,” Huang said. Maintaining zero Covid would probably require long-lasting social and economic disruptions; giving it up would invite a rapid surge of infections. “But after that you could be in much better shape,” Huang said.