OMICRON SURGE: outbreak tests China’s anti-Covid strategy

A surge in cases is forcing Beijing to adjust its strict pandemic measures, but it’s in no hurry to “live with Covid” as other countries are doing.

At first, Xiong Yijie was barred from leaving his residential compound. Now he can’t even leave his apartment.

The Shanghai resident is confined to his home as the city battles a virus outbreak with a two-phase lockdown that began Monday in the financial district of Pudong, where Xiong lives.

Xiong, 28, said he sets his alarm for 6 a.m. each morning so he can order vegetables online, but the system becomes overwhelmed with orders and stock runs out within minutes.

“I basically can’t buy vegetables now,” he said.

The outbreak, driven by a subvariant known as “stealth omicron,” is testing China’s zero-tolerance strategy, which has minimized cases and deaths compared with countries like the United States through a combination of mass testing, contact tracing, quarantine and lockdowns. But while health experts say Beijing will eventually have to find a way to “live with Covid,” it doesn’t appear to be in any hurry.

Since March 1, China has reported almost 90,000 infections nationwide, as well as its first Covid-19 deaths in more than a year. While low by global standards, China hasn’t seen such numbers since the start of the pandemic.

The outbreak is driving gradual adjustments in policy by officials mindful of a population and an economy already pushed to the limit by two years of restrictions. That was underscored this month when Chinese leader Xi Jinping told top officials that they must remain committed to virus prevention and control while minimizing its effects on the world’s second-biggest economy.

Mainland officials are also keen to avoid a repeat of what happened in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, where a recent omicron outbreak produced shocking images of body bags in hospital corridors and Covid-19 patients on gurneys in parking lots. Most of the deaths have been among Hong Kong residents 80 and older, who have stubbornly low vaccination rates, a situation mirrored in mainland China.

Beijing is fine-tuning its approach based on lessons learned from Hong Kong as well as other places that have dealt with omicron, said Heiwai Tang, an economics professor at the University of Hong Kong.

“Now they know this is a very strong wave and the traditional measures of controlling the virus may not be effective,” he said.

This shift has played out in how authorities have responded to outbreaks in major cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Rather than a citywide lockdown, Shanghai is set to lock down for five days in each of its two main sections as residents undergo mass testing. The local government has promised tax relief and other measures to “optimize the business environment.”

The city of 26 million reported almost 6,000 new infections on Wednesday, the National Health Commission said, almost all of them asymptomatic.

Shenzhen has emerged from a one-week lockdown during which some factories, including Apple supplier Foxconn, were able to operate under closed-loop arrangements that required employees to stay on site.

“The lockdowns are going to be partial and are going to last for a much shorter period of time and are going to be more precise,” Tang said.

Image: China Steps Up Measures To Control COVID Outbreaks
Health workers test people for the coronavirus in Beijing on March 22.Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

Other recent policy changes included allowing the distribution of at-home rapid antigen tests; giving emergency approval to China’s first foreign virus treatment, oral pills developed by Pfizer; and letting patients with minor or no symptoms stay in centralized quarantine facilities rather than hospitals.

But China is nowhere close to lifting all restrictions, especially as Xi prepares to seek an unprecedented third term in office at a Communist Party congress later this year. A large-scale outbreak could bring instability that threatens those plans.

Officials in more remote parts of China have continued to enforce strict measures, for fear that failure to contain an outbreak could cost them their jobs. This month, all 24 million people in the northeastern province of Jilin were barred from leaving the province or traveling within it, the first time an entire province has been sealed off since the start of the pandemic.

“The dilemma here, especially for local policy implementers, is that they are still held accountable for local disease outbreaks,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That would encourage more heavy-handed, nonscientific and even excessive methods of getting things done.”

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