China’s Zero-Covid Reckoning – WSJ

China’s Zero-Covid Reckoning – WSJ

China’s Zero-Covid Reckoning – WSJ

A security guard wears a protective suit to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as he stands guard in the central business district on November 24 in Beijing.


Photo:

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Remember when China’s handling of Covid-19 was supposed to be a global model? Western public health sages welcomed Beijing’s zero-Covid policy as an alternative to America’s messy democratic decision to live with the virus after the disastrous initial shutdowns. Well, so much for that.

As the third anniversary of the Covid outbreak approaches, China is reporting record infections. The daily highs surpass April’s rise in Shanghai, which was shut down for two months. Outbreaks are occurring across China, and cities are reimposing lockdowns. Nomura,

the Japanese brokerage estimates that more than a fifth of the country is under restricted movement.

The latest outbreak was inevitable in a large continental nation given the increasing transmissibility of the virus as it mutates. China’s particular problem is that the draconian zero-Covid policy has left the people less protected by either vaccine or natural immunity. For nationalistic reasons, the Communist Party refused to accept Western vaccines that are more effective than China’s homegrown shot. Long lockdowns mean that fewer people have been exposed to the virus and developed natural immunity as they have in the rest of the world.

China’s aging population is particularly vulnerable, as the country lacks hospital capacity and ICU beds to deal with widespread serious illness. By one estimate, a full reopening could lead to 5.8 million intensive care admissions in a country with fewer than four ICU beds per 100,000 people. The designs of China’s rulers are opaque, but this may explain the party’s dogged insistence on clinging to zero Covid despite the global evidence that lockdowns only slow the spread of disease while doing great economic and social damage.

President Xi Jinping’s second problem is political. An authoritarian regime can always do what it does best – monitor, coerce, lock down. But there is a lack of a mechanism to gain public support for the pain that may accompany the abandonment of zero-Covid. Democracies, despite their cacophony, have more flexibility to change policies and adapt when the public sees that the facts demand it.

Meanwhile, there are growing signs that the latest Covid outbreak and shutdowns are meeting with more public frustration and opposition. The protest this week at the Foxconn plant that makes Apple‘s

iPhones in the central city of Zhengzhou are one example that has made international press. There are surely many others in such a large country without the opportunity to register public complaints.

The new shutdowns will slow China’s economy, with growth estimates falling for the fourth quarter and the year below 3%. That assumes Chinese officials don’t gild the books. China’s official GDP target for this year had been 5.5%.

China’s Covid and economic struggles may partly explain China’s recent less bellicose behavior on the global stage. But the US cannot assume that will continue. The larger lesson of China’s Covid bill is that lockdowns don’t work, and authoritarian regimes are not the models of public health or anything else that too many Americans imagine them to be.

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Appeared in the print edition on November 25, 2022.

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