Article from TrialSiteNews with Commentary from Michael Lerner
Most countries are either coming around to or are accepting the fact that COVID-19 is here to stay and that it is best to learn to live with it. China is not one of those countries. It is instead seeking to eliminate the virus through a series of stringent measures such as severe lockdowns, border controls, mass contact tracing, among others. This zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19 has meant that China—despite being the (probable) birthplace of SARS-CoV-2—has consistently registered zero to very few new infections. However, strictly maintaining the COVID-19 cases at practically nothing comes at the expense of rising political, social, and economic costs, especially with the advent of new variants that can breach restrictions more easily.
The zero-tolerance policy itself is not foolproof, evidenced by last month’s COVID outbreak that affected more than half of Chinese provinces. Although China was able to bring down local infections to zero in a matter of weeks, new infections have again been reported this month in the southeastern province, Fujian. Incidentally, both outbreaks were caused by the Delta variant of the COVID-19.
Amidst these outbreaks and rising costs, pressure is building on the Chinese government to abandon its prized COVID strategy. However, Chinese officials suggest that a zero-tolerance policy has been a remarkable success and that its abandonment is completely off the table. Is the zero-tolerance policy as formidable as the Chinese officials make it out to be? Let us find out.
Different Elements of China’s Zero-Tolerance Policy
One of the core elements of China’s zero-tolerance response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been mass testing. This testing is not usually targeted and concise, and reports of few cases can lead to mandatory testing directives for all the residents of the particular municipality or a city. For example, a coronavirus outbreak in several Chinese provinces in August of 2021 led to mass testing all across China. The city of Wuhan, for instance, had all of its 11 million residents tested following last month’s outbreak. The same was witnessed in the Chinese capital, Beijing, where authorities mandated testing for all the residents living in localities with more than 10,000 people. Note that the costs of this testing is placed on the municipality/local region, which increasingly feel the financial pressure of such shotgun-based approaches.
Another feature of China’s COVID strategy is the use of contact tracing apps (CTAs) to locate and subsequently isolate people infected with the virus. China was the first country to make use of CTAs in order to stem the spread of coronavirus, introducing its so-called “health code” app in February of 2020. The app assigns users a red, yellow, or green QR code based on both self-reported and automatically-collected information. The Green QR code gives users unrestricted access to public locations, a yellow code indicates that the person might have encountered a person with Covid-19 infection, and a red code is assigned to users infected with the virus. The health code app has received widespread criticism for collecting and saving data such as personal information and location on central servers.
Additionally, China has made use of a combination of travel controls that have included, at one point or another, bans on foreign travel, restrictions on inter-city travel, mandatory quarantine, and complete lockdowns. It is worth mentioning that one constant feature of China’s zero-tolerance strategy—that has tied all other elements together—is mass mobilization. The Chinese Communist Party, with approximately 95 million members, dominates the public and private sphere of modern-day China. The Communist Party’s ability to penetrate the grassroots level of the society has allowed it to implement the seemingly complicated zero-tolerance COVID-19 strategy.
The Rising Costs
The Chinese government is adamant in portraying the zero-tolerance policy as a great success. It has numbers to back it up as well—assuming, of course, the numbers are an accurate depiction of the situation on the ground. After all, new infections reported in China have consistently remained at zero to very few. However, overwhelming evidence suggests that the policy of maintaining the new infections at zero is coming at the colossal expense of rising political, social, and economic costs.
To start, the policy has increased political problems such as corruption and rent-seeking, with, for example, government officials selling basic food items in isolated residencies at a much higher rate than local vendors. Moreover, there has been news of high-ranking government officials breaking COVID protocols and abusing power with little to no repercussions. The larger point is that the brunt of the stringent no-tolerance strategy falls on the common people, while powerful people continue to simply escape—or even profit—from the same set of rules.
Social costs are rising as well. While it is difficult to quantify social costs, it is clear that China is suffering because of stringent internal and international travel restrictions. Person-to-person contact has diminished, the exchange of ideas has slowed down, and cultural and intellectual ties with the rest of the world have faded.
Additionally, China is reeling from the effects of the no-tolerance policy on the economic front. Several leading forecasting companies—including Schroders—have downgraded their forecast of China’s yearly growth. Schroders, for example, has lowered its forecast of China’s GDP growth in 2021 from 9.2% to 8.5% due to containment-induced bottlenecks in supply chains and slow manufacturing output. Additionally, China’s Non-Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI)—a survey of the service sector—has witnessed a steep decline as well, falling from 55 to 47.5 following the Delta outbreak in August of 2021. In the grand scheme of things, these figures might not seem worrisome. However, when these figures are placed in the context of China’s supreme growth over the last two decades, the country’s dwindling economic condition becomes clearer. So much so, TrialSite has previously highlighted that China’s entire economic miracle could be in jeopardy if the zero-tolerance COVID strategy continues.
China’s Move to Mass Vaccination: Is Zero-Tolerance Policy Coming to an End?
China boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with, according to claims, approximately 71% of its residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Common sense suggests that China’s move to mass vaccination would finally put an end to the country’s zero-tolerance policy. However, that does not seem likely for two primary reasons. First, the Communist Party’s entire response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been based on fear and mass hysteria. According to sources, the Communist Party is intimidated by COVID-19 and sees the virus as a potential threat to their absolute power. In this regard, the Party wants to completely eradicate the virus, which cannot be achieved with mass vaccinations alone.
Second, and more importantly, Chinese vaccines do not have an impressive track record. Various countries that have relied on Chinese vaccines—such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Pakistan—have witnessed mass outbreaks and breakthrough infections. Both Thailand and Indonesia have moved to abandon their use of Chinese vaccines. As previously mentioned, China itself has witnessed several COVID-19 outbreaks induced by the Delta variant, despite having a high vaccination rate. This shows the in-effectivity of the Chinese vaccines in dealing with the newer variants of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. Under these circumstances, it seems unlikely that the Chinese government would abandon its zero-tolerance policy.
Regardless of what the Chinese government does or does not do, the zero-tolerance policy is not sustainable in the long term. The quest of keeping the COVID cases at zero is in itself too big of an onus to undertake for any country. The Chinese government should stop following a false ideal—an unachievable target—one that is also the cause of their recent political, social, and economic troubles. Barring an exit strategy, these troubles are only going to rise.