Analyzing China’s Zero-Covid Policy
The zero-Covid regime has been the signature policy of President Xi Jinping. Chinese officials have repeatedly touted this policy as the most successful state response to tackling and mitigating the Covid-19 pandemic. Lockdowns, contact-tracing apps, quarantines and mass testing are the main pillars of this policy. Lockdowns are enforced even if a few Covid-19 cases are detected. In 2019, China surprised the whole world when it shut down the entire Wuhan city and locked more than 11 million citizens in their homes. The lockdown policy has continued since then. The affected area can be a neighbourhood or an entire city. A lockdown can continue for a week or months depending upon the result of mass testing.
Contact-tracing apps are used by authorities to monitor people’s movement in a bid to track the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Residents need to use the app to scan the bar code for accessing public places like offices, restaurants and even public toilets. If they cross paths with an infected person or travel to high-risk areas, they are notified as red and are forced to undergo mandatory testing or isolation.
Mass testing is another part of the zero-Covid policy. The government carries out mass testing in places where Covid-19 or one or more of its variants are reported. Even in those areas, where there are no new cases, residents are required to have a recent negative PCR test before entering a business area or public facilities.
Strict enforcement of quarantine has always been a tool in the hands of Chinese authorities to curb the spread of the virus. Any person who has been in contact with an infected person is ordered to stay in government-run quarantine centres or isolate in homes that are locked by electronic seals. Even those who had a distant contact with an infected, or potentially-infected, person are ordered to quarantine themselves. For the last three years, this policy has impacted the lives of the people, and they have grown weary of the unrelenting lockdowns, quarantines, mass testing and app tracking implemented with ruthless efficiency.
The zero-Covid regime did serve the intended purpose initially. John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center has reported that China has so far recorded 16000 Covid-19 deaths among its population of 1.4 billion. Whereas the USA, the country hit hardest by the pandemic, has so far reported more than one million deaths, China has achieved this feat at a great cost. This policy has impacted the economy deeply and depressed growth. China is growing at the second slowest rate in 46 years and it has lost 2% of its gross GDP. If you do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, this translates into at least $350 billion which is a significant figure and it has impacted employment and government expenditure. Secondly, this policy has severely restricted people’s movement and impacted their daily life and travels. Even those citizens who are not under lockdown must undergo repeated testing and experience limitations imposed on travelling.
These restrictions have led to fatigue and caused widespread protestations which are significant in many ways. Firstly, this is the first time that protests erupted simultaneously in major cities. Though the level of protests is not existential and as threatening to the Communist regime as ongoing demonstrations in Iran against ideological control, the fact that people have taken to the streets speaks volumes about the growing discontent among ordinary people.
Secondly, participants came from a wide range of social backgrounds.
Third, and most important, some of the demonstrations quickly evolved into demands for political changes, and protesters explicitly raised political slogans. All in all, that national-level wave of protests is a major development that was taken very seriously by Chinese authorities which is evident by rolling back and relaxations in some measures under zero-Covid policy. For instance, lockdown would now be enforced for a building or other smaller units, not for entire cities or neighbourhoods. If no new cases are detected for five days consecutively, lockdowns would be lifted. People diagnosed with Covid would no longer be required to complete their quarantine in government-run facilities. Negative PCR tests are not required for accessing public facilities and the Chinese government has also lifted inter-provincial travel restrictions. Though China has refused to scrap the zero-Covid policy altogether, it has relaxed it to some extent which indicates that President Xi’s administration is fully cognizant of the toll the constant disruptions are having on the economy and society and they can no longer continue to cause misery for people for the sake of complete control over the pandemic.
These protests have made it amply clear that any policy, however meticulous and diligently designed and implemented, doesn’t have a chance of serving its intended purposes, if it does not enjoy popular support and does not care about the socioeconomic and psychological well-being of the masses. China’s strict measures were praised initially as they were instrumental in saving lives, but over the years, that policy has become outdated. When the rest of the world has adapted to the virus and is near normalcy, there is no point in further disrupting the lives of ordinary people. Some analysts have pointed out that soccer’s premium event, FIFA World Cup, has also ignited the wave of protests because the Chinese saw that thousands of people across the Globe were gathering in jam-packed stadiums and cheering for their team shoulder-to-shoulder without masks or any sign of social distancing.
We can now compare China’s zero-Covid policy to anti-Covid measures adopted by other countries to make our point further clear. Bloomberg has maintained Covid Resilience Ranking since the outbreak of the pandemic and monitored progress in more than 50 countries on the basis of different indicators like vaccine doses, lockdown severity, flight capacity and vaccinated travel routes. In June 2022, it updated the ranking for the last time and ranked South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Ireland, Norway and Saudi Arabia in the top 5 countries. All these countries share some common threads: they have put the pandemic behind and reopened their borders, and assumed economic and social activities without any substantial spike in deaths. The top performers have executed a strategy and implemented anti-Covid policies with the acceptance that the virus is here to stay; along with that, they have aggressively vaccinated the vulnerable segments of their populations. China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were ranked highly in Bloomberg-maintained Covid Resilience Ranking before the development of vaccines because their strict containment measures kept their societies largely Covid-free. But after Covid-19 mutated into more infectious Omicron, they were unable to outrun it. Resultantly, both Taiwan and Hong Kong saw spike in deaths and China had to deploy more stringent measures, paralyzing economic growth and fomenting social unrest. Now China has been ranked at the bottom 51st position in comparison with India (39), the USA (36), the UK (22), and even Pakistan (50). Briefly speaking, zero-Covid-adherent countries that implemented policies for the complete eradication of coronavirus had made a tough transition and decided to accept fatalities and living with the virus. New Zealand and Australia made that transition and China refused to let that happen and maintained the toughest lockdown in the world (79 in Bloomberg Ranking) until recently. The reluctance to return to normalcy has cost China, dearly and infuriated the Chinese citizens as well.
In this regard, Pakistan’s response to the outbreak of the pandemic is also worth mentioning, and worth appreciating too. Pakistan’s then Prime Minister, Imran Khan, decided not to enforce a complete shutdown and instead, Pakistan came up with the innovative solution of smart lockdown. The smart lockdown policy performed exceptionally well, saving both lives and livelihoods of Pakistanis. The containment, quarantine, treatment, post-treatment, and easing measures were designed and implemented in a way to strike a balance between protecting both lives and livelihoods. The outcome remained impressive. As per an article published in the prestigious magazine The Economist titled “Is Pakistan Really Handling the Pandemic Better than India,” it had been accepted that Pakistan’s policy response was more effective than that of India despite far greater resources and the GDP of Pakistan’s perennial rival. In terms of the economy, at the time when the world was going through the worst economic recession after the Great Depression of the 1930s, Pakistan’s economy contracted by a mere 0.4%. Unlike Pakistan, the Indian economy fell by 9%, that of the United States by 8.9%, the UK by 9.7%, France by 9.5%, and Germany by 5%. Only China managed to grow modestly albeit at a greater cost to the social and psychological well-being of its citizens. Pakistan also managed to perform well when it comes to both total deaths and deaths per million. At the time of writing this article, the Federal Ministry of National Health Services has reported 30,635 deaths, a number that is obviously way less than the horrible health emergency India and other countries faced in the 2020-21 period. Additionally, the PTI government provided income supplements to lower-income people by using digital cash transfers which provided some cushion to people. So, keeping in view the limited human and material resources, as well as health infrastructure, Pakistan did perform well when it comes to containment, quarantine, treatment and post-treatment pillar of Covid management.
As climate change is creating adverse impacts relentlessly on global atmospheric and oceanic circulation, it is certain that Covid-19-like pandemics would likely hit the planet again and again. We are all connected; no one is safe until everyone is safe. The lesson should be learned and mistakes should be avoided. We must remain vigilant and global preparedness should remain up to the mark. We can ill afford reluctance and dereliction. A successful response to Covid-19 depends upon multiple factors. A country’s wealth, scientific prowess and health infrastructure do play a role in designing and enforcing state measures but these are not exclusive factors. There is one lesson that the Covid era has taught us: those societies which trust their governments and have cohesion have the best chance to weather crises however big they are. Governments all over the world tried to gain that public trust, some succeeded in doing that and some failed conspicuously. Policies that prioritize public welfare eventually become instrumental in winning trust in state policies and actions. The recent wave of protest in a strictly regulated state like China does indicate that public policies should be designed and implemented in a way to ensure maximum facilitation to the masses; otherwise they are doomed to fail and prove an exercise in futility. The aim should be the protection of both lives and livelihoods of ordinary people. Covid-19 has clearly shown that pandemics are still capable of creating panic and human societies, however advanced and organized, are helpless before the wrath of viruses. Isolated and uncoordinated national responses exacerbate the crises and should be avoided.