Since the Covid pandemic began, China’s government has operated a zero-tolerance policy on outbreaks. The resource-intensive system of targeted lockdowns, mass testing and quarantine successfully kept the virus at bay and the death toll extraordinarily low compared with other countries. However, newer and more transmissible variants such as Omicron have challenged, and at times overwhelmed, that system.
This year there have been rampant lockdowns ranging from buildings to entire counties, prompting frustration, fear and anger. Some, such as those in Shanghai, Tibet and Xinjiang, have been enforced harshly, leading to food shortages and other deprivations.
Under the zero-Covid policy, local officials have been tasked with the near impossible: to control all outbreaks with minimal social and economic disruption. Officials face punishment if they are deemed to have failed in their response.
But health experts agree that to open up now would lead to millions of deaths. China has no herd immunity, its local vaccines are not as effective as the foreign-made ones Beijing refuses to approve, and its health system would probably crumble.
Recent policy tweaks have focused on improving the low rates of vaccination among the elderly. Vaccines were encouraged but never mandatory, and fear, scepticism, or complacency is thought to have driven refusals among millions of older people.
Zero-Covid measures have been linked to multiple tragedies including deaths caused by delayed or denied healthcare and suicides. A deadly building fire in Urumqui triggered a wave of protests against Covid restrictions as frustrations with the strict policy boiled over.
The government has remained committed to zero-Covid, a point emphasised by China’s leader Xi Jinping on his reappointment as Communist party chief last month.