Analysis-China’s COVID governance under pressure as Omicron spreads

By Ryan Woo, Roxanne Liu and David Stanway

BEIJING (Reuters) – Public health governance in China is expected to come under acute pressure in the coming weeks as the biggest surge of COVID-19 cases since the outbreak in Wuhan in 2020 depletes medical resources, tests the the country’s ability to contain infections and weighs on the economy.

In the past 10 weeks, China has reported more new local symptomatic cases – more than 14,000 – than in 2021 amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, fueling fears of strict city shutdowns and instability. economic.

Parts of China are already feeling the pinch as they scramble to test local populations and quarantine those infected under China’s strict COVID-19 playbook, despite relatively low case numbers compared to global standards.

In the northeastern province of Jilin, the region hardest hit by the current outbreak, affected cities are rushing to prepare temporary hospitals. A local official said Tuesday that the province’s epidemic prevention supplies will run out in two to three days.

“The next two weeks are critical to determine whether existing policies can really be effective in curbing the growth of infections or even reaching completely zero cases in a city as we saw last year,” said Chen Zhengmin, professor of epidemiology at the University of Oxford.

China has firmly maintained its “dynamic” zero COVID policy – rigorously identifying infections and blocking them as they emerge but not insisting on zero infections – for public health and political reasons.

Although China has a vaccination rate of nearly 90%, Chinese experts said an insufficient number of elderly people had received booster shots, risking death and serious cases. It is also unclear to what extent Chinese vaccines reduce the risk of developing the disease caused by the Omicron variant.

Chinese leaders have been banking heavily on their battle against COVID-19 and are said to be reluctant to change course in a sensitive year when President Xi Jinping is set to secure a third term.

“Preventing and controlling epidemics has become more difficult,” National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said on Tuesday. But he stressed “it has been proven in practice” that China’s current virus measures are still effective against Omicron.

The country is also struggling to balance pandemic measures with an economic recovery. Citi analysts estimate that the latest wave will reduce GDP growth by 0.5 to 0.8 percentage points in the first quarter.

China should consider less disruptive or resource-consuming measures, including allowing asymptomatic infections to self-quarantine at home, though such a move is unlikely to happen soon, some experts say.

“The old method was very effective, whatever the cost, and [epidemic prevention] is the biggest political task,” Chen said. “Furthermore, if such a change is made, the general public could misinterpret it as abandonment.

Some experts are already saying China’s COVID approach is no longer sustainable.

Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, who led an early study of Wuhan in 2020, said he was “not very optimistic” even if strict lockdowns are slowing the spread.

“Multiple introductions (of Omicron) into mainland China would be inevitable,” Nishiura said.

(GRAPHIC: Mainland China COVID-19 cases (2021-2022) – https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/CHINA/znvnenaadpl/chart.png)

HIGH STAKES

China is trying to strike a balance between targeted restrictions to stop the spread of the virus and ensuring the disruptions don’t worsen an already uncertain economic outlook.

Shanghai and Shenzhen adopted rare tighter restrictions for these two cities – one closing all elementary, middle and high schools and the other suspending non-essential businesses – but stopped before a severe lockdown like Wuhan’s in 2020.

China’s policy to fight COVID-19 is not completely broken, but daily increases of more than 1,000 cases are a warning sign, said Jin Dong-Yan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong. .

To bolster China’s testing capacity, authorities last week approved the use of self-administered antigen test kits alongside polymerase chain reaction tests.

China said late Tuesday that patients with mild symptoms will be quarantined in centralized facilities, revising an earlier requirement to move them to hospitals, in response to concerns over medical resources.

“The worst-case scenario for them is that Omicron overloads China’s healthcare system and the whole country is flooded with COVID cases,” said Huang Yanzhong, senior researcher for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In mainland China, the official death toll has been largely static since 2020, with just two deaths reported in 2021 and none this year.

The elderly in China are vulnerable to Omicron variants, so “a significant number of cases and deaths would be expected,” said Nishiura of Kyoto University.

ECONOMIC TOLL

There are signs that some cities are taking a harder line.

Shenzhen, home to about 17.6 million people, said on Monday only one member of a household could go out every two or three days to stock up on basic necessities.

“I think there’s no way to stop Omicron now,” said Peter, 49, a Shenzhen resident and owner of a virtual reality startup. “The only way is to maintain normality and welcome the virus. You see abroad, coronavirus is like a cold. Many people have recovered and traveled everywhere. Why are we trapped here?”

In Shanghai, 106 incoming international flights scheduled from March 21 to May 1 will be diverted to other Chinese cities.

Businesses from automaker BYD to operator KFC Yum China say their operations have already been impacted, with more disruption expected as cases rise.

In the closed city of Changchun, the impact of curbs has been harsh.

Guo, owner of a pedicure and beauty salon, said she was worried about her loans and the salaries of her employees.

“I feel very overwhelmed right now,” Guo said. “Only those in an epidemic area would understand that feeling.”

(Reporting by Roxanne Liu, David Stanway and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing, Rocky Swift in Tokyo and Beijing Newsroom. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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