China’s deepening confrontation with COVID-19

Had Vladimir Putin not ordered an invasion of Ukraine, the headlines right now would be the intensification of the war between China and COVID-19. In Shanghai (about 26 million inhabitants), state officials announced on March 27 that the eastern half of the city would be closed until April 1 for massive COVID-19 testing. Once that is achieved, the western half will be closed until April 5. Health officials conduct tests in confined areas and an infected resident could be forced to
a quarantine facility.

Tens of millions in Jilin province and the tech hub city of Shenzhen (17.5 million inhabitants) have already been locked up. But the closure of Shanghai, the commercial and financial heart of the world’s second-largest economy, is the most drastic step yet taken as part of the “zero COVID” policy, a plan designed to keep the number of COVID-19 infections as close to zero as possible. possible. The plan has succeeded in limiting the spread of the virus. Chinese leaders have reported fewer than 5,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic, while the US death toll is approaching 1 million. Even if China’s official figures are suspect (and they are), the loss of life is certainly proportionally much closer to the levels reported in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, which also have ultra-strict COVID control until recently. exercised policy.

But zero-COVID is taking a heavy economic toll. China’s economic growth has been slowing for years as rising wages reduce incentives for foreign companies to use China as a manufacturing center and large-scale state investment in infrastructure and real estate development creates an oversupply of both. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have increased the costs everyone, including China, has to pay to import fuel, food and other goods. Shutting down half of Shanghai, if only for a few days, will add to the burden.

This reality has forced a relaxation of some zero-COVID rules. Instead of being forced into overcrowded hospitals, infected people with mild symptoms can now report to local quarantine facilities. The duration of some quarantines has been shortened. But despite the economic damage already done, the massive lockdown in Shanghai shows that the Chinese government is not ready to change course.

All this misery comes at a politically sensitive time. This fall, a Communist Party congress is expected to ratify a landmark decision to grant Xi Jinping a third term as leader of China. Since the pandemic broke out, Xi has tried to shift blame for the origin of COVID-19 and for the early censorship that allowed the virus to go global. He has argued for the superiority of the Chinese system, pointing to the political turmoil, economic impact and higher death toll in America and Europe.

But the Omicron variant has made life in China much more complicated. It has hit the country hard because so few Chinese have been infected with COVID-19 or stung with the more effective vaccines found in the US and Europe.

Xi can hope that sooner or later there will be new treatments and the development of a domestically made mRNA vaccine. But the risk is mounting that the disruption to Chinese life from COVID-19 will get worse before it gets better — and that Xi will need to carefully manage the economic and political fallout in order to consolidate his long-term political control for the good to keep track.

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