By Yanzhong Huang
“How lucky I was born in China,” a young Chinese scholar declared last month in his WeChat. He was proud: Following the worst domestic Covid-19 outbreak since Wuhan, China had brought daily new case counts down to a few dozen.
The case numbers — when contrasted with the United States, which has less than a quarter of China’s population yet daily average cases above 130,000 — might not seem too concerning on their own. But they illustrate that China’s zero-infections policy is no longer working as designed. At the outset of the pandemic, the policy successfully drove down cases — and was adopted by other countries — but the Delta variant changed the game and shows that this strategy no longer fits. It’s time for China to change tack, as the socioeconomic and public health costs now outweigh the benefits with this highly transmissible new variant. If it doesn’t, China and its people will suffer.
While other countries were still in the grips of the pandemic, China by early April 2020 had managed to get the virus under control within its territory. It implemented a zero-infections policy, under which the identification of even one local Covid case would trigger draconian measures in order to reset local cases to zero. To fend off imported cases, China imposed some of the world’s toughest international travel restrictions.
China is not the only country to pursue a zero-tolerance approach toward Covid-19. Other countries that did, like New Zealand, are also now seeing less success. But few would dispute that China’s authoritarian government, with unrivaled power and resources, is in a much better position than almost any other nation to quickly eliminate new cases and make the strategy work. So the fact that the policy isn’t working as intended is bad news for China and any other country aiming to fully stamp out the virus in the same manner.