China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy under threat with rising cases posing ‘grave challenge’

Beijing’s obsession with an aggressive plan to tackle Covid-19 could soon be derailed completely, with cases exploding as Delta takes hold.

While much of the world is reopening and learning to live with Covid-19, China has long been pushing ahead with its tough “zero-Covid” strategy.

But that policy is now at risk of being derailed completely as new cases explode across the country.

Last month, a massive, 5000-room Covid quarantine facility was opened in Guangzhou at a cost of $361 million in order to house incoming travellers, revealing just how seriously the government was taking its zero-tolerance approach.

According to Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, the facility was proof of China’s determination to eliminate the virus.

“It’s arguably the most state-of-the-art quarantine centre in the world, if you will – very hi-tech, very sophisticated,” he told CNN.

“This is not just a stopgap measure. (Leaders) hold the view that this pandemic is going to take a while to end, and China is going to continue this strict control of its borders.

“Facilities like this serve as a way to institutionalise the zero-tolerance strategy.”

But now, China is facing one of its biggest challenges since the pandemic began, with a resurgence in cases threatening the entire plan.

‘Grave challenge’

China is now in the grip of the most extensive Covid outbreak since the early days of the pandemic in 2020, with new cases confirmed in most of the nation’s 31 provinces.

While it still enjoys a relatively low number of cases compared to other countries, the National Health Commission revealed 74 new cases had been confirmed on Saturday, and that 50 of those were locally transmitted.

And between October 17 and November 1, 538 local cases were also recorded, with most concentrated in the northwest.

The resurgence has led to mass testing, travel restrictions and new lockdowns, with workers mobilised to disinfect the homes of confirmed cases in some areas.

In another example of how seriously China was taking the Delta threat, tens of thousands of visitors were recently locked in at Shanghai Disneyland and forced to undergo Covid testing after a positive Covid case emerged.

But despite these tough measures, according to theFinancial Times, the National Health Commission’s Wu Liangyou said China now faced a “complex and grave challenge this winter and next spring” when it came to achieving zero-Covid.

Of key concern to authorities is the prevalence of the virus across the globe, including within neighbouring nations – and it has caused many experts to wonder how long China can sustain the zero-Covid approach.

Cracks appear

Already there are signs that zero-Covid is under threat, with a number of protests – which are rare in China – breaking out recently, along with growing criticism on social media.

Health experts have also cautiously started to push for a more relaxed approach, although they have so far been ignored by officials.

“People are starting to wane,” Professor Chunhuei Chi, the director of Oregon State University’s centre for global health, told The Guardian late last month.

“As with anywhere in the world we can see dragged into this pandemic for nearly two years, and everywhere we observe pandemic fatigue. That would surely also be affecting Chinese people.”

Australia’s own infectious disease expert, Australian National University Medical School professor Peter Collignon, put it even more bluntly in a recent interview with Time.

“Covid Zero in the medium to long-term is unsustainable,” Prof Collignon told the publication.

“Delta shows the almost impossibility of that.

“It’s hard to see how China will be able to get to zero Covid this winter.”

For now, despite the tough measures, most residents support the pursuit of zero Covid, especially as China prepares to host the Winter Olympics in February and Winter Paralympics in March.

But with cracks well and truly starting to appear, most health experts agree it’s only a matter of when, not if, the controversial policy will finally be abandoned for once and for all.

Originally published as China’s aggressive ‘zero-Covid’ policy in doubt with rising cases posing ‘complex’ challenge

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