China lacks Covid exit strategy as it strives for zero infections

China’s commitment to achieving zero Covid-19 cases means most of its citizens will probably be cut off from the outside world until the year-end, delaying a full return to normal for world’s second-largest economy.

Beijing could even wait until partway through 2022 to reopen to visitors, despite the fact almost 80 per cent of its population is expected to be immunised by the end of this year, analysts said.

“In China, once an institution is built, it’s hard to tear down,” said Xi Chen, an associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health. “The zero-tolerance strategy has worked well for a long time so it’s hard to move to an opening up strategy.”

Zero-tolerance policies helped restore economic growth in China and many other east Asian countries in the early months of the pandemic. But analysts warned the strategy could become a liability if governments were unable to come up with clear exit strategies.

Despite some setbacks, European and North American countries that accepted low levels of daily cases and have begun to lift travel restrictions were expected to drive the global economic recovery from the virus, the Economist Intelligence Unit wrote in a recent note.

China was in a better position than most countries to maintain a zero‐Covid strategy because of its lower reliance on cross-border capital inflows and outside talent and its strong export industry, the EIU said.

But for the economy to return to its full potential, the country would need to restore international travel, analysts said, an imperative that would only gain importance as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics in February.

“The event will be even more challenging than Tokyo because it’s in the winter when the virus spreads more easily,” said Yale’s Chen. The Tokyo Olympics start on Friday.

Residents watch a community worker deliver daily necessities in the city of Ruili in China’s south-western Yunnan province © AP

China’s leaders have begun to speak more frequently about the need for immunity passports to allow international travel. But Beijing has signed few agreements with other countries because of the problem of mutual recognition of each other’s vaccines

Beijing has yet to approve any non-Chinese vaccine, even though mRNA jabs developed by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna have an efficacy rate of about 95 per cent.

That rate is significantly higher than China’s leading inactivated viral vaccines from state-run Sinopharm and private company Sinovac, which Chinese officials have occasionally acknowledged.

Neither of the Chinese jabs has received regulatory sign-off in Europe or North America.

China maintains strict requirements for travellers entering the country, including mandatory swab tests and at least two weeks of quarantine in state-approved hotels.

Even so, Beijing has repeatedly emphasised the need to be vigilant against cracks in its pandemic defences. Local governments have been pressed to not relax restrictions despite rapidly climbing immunisation.

After China announced that it had reached 1.4bn administered vaccine doses last week — meaning that about half of the population is inoculated — some smaller cities began limiting access to hospitals, railway stations and supermarkets for unvaccinated residents.

New clusters of infections, no matter how small, are met with blanket lockdowns. Ruili, a city in Yunnan province on China’s south-western border with Myanmar, this month ordered its fourth round of restrictions on movement after symptomatic cases were discovered.

China reported its highest daily number for new cases since January on Tuesday at 65, partly because of the Yunnan cluster. The local government has blamed illegal border crossings and vowed to crack down on smugglers.

Local authorities have also reinforced a 500km barbed-wire border fence in Ruili, which was erected following an earlier outbreak in September, according to local media reports.

Last month, another outbreak of more than 150 infections in southern China, including some with the Delta variant, was linked to people who had recently entered the country, according to local health authorities. 

In response, Guangzhou, the provincial capital, started work on an “international health station”, or purpose-built quarantine hotel, with 5,000 rooms and high-tech health monitoring equipment.

Li Bin, deputy head of China’s National Health Commission, said the arrival of the Delta variant in Guangdong and Yunnan provinces was a reminder that work to prevent re-emergence of the virus “must not loosen for even a moment”.

“All outbreaks are sparked by imported cases, so our main job for now is to prevent reintroduction,” he said last week in Beijing.

However, some said the biggest obstacle to opening borders could ultimately be political.

The Communist party would be keen to maintain zero cases through the Winter Olympics and perhaps until after an important party congress and leadership changes in late 2022, said Feng Chucheng, founder of Plenum, a Beijing-based consultancy.

If it achieved this, it could then “declare victory against the pandemic and the superiority of China’s political system”, he said.

Additional reporting by Qianer Liu in Shenzhen and Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai

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