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Amid Record High Cases, Why Is China Sticking To "Zero-COVID" Policy?

China's stubborn commitment to "zero-COVID" perhaps has more to do with politics than public health.

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Tom Hale

author

Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

clockNov 25 2022, 19:14 UTC
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A man in hospital gear and PPE during a COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai, China

China has attracted criticism from the international community over its handling of COVID-19.  Image credit: Graeme Kennedy/Shutterstock.com

China has imposed a fresh series of lockdowns following a record daily high in COVID-19 cases. Mainland China reported over 31,000 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, November 23, according to state media. That’s higher than the previous record high of 28,000 back in April (although bear in mind, it’s still lower than the UK and the US). 

Faced with this new surge, many are wondering why China is still persisting with its costly and super-strict “zero-COVID” public health policy. 

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Despite the pandemic first being reported in China, they have fared relatively well against COVID-19 compared to many other countries, experiencing significantly lower rates of infection compared to most of Europe and North America. 

Some of this success has been credited to its so-called “zero COVID” policy. The aim of this strategy is to closely track the population through mass testing, contact tracing, and surveillance, then aggressively stamping out any spikes of infection through lockdowns, quarantine, and isolation. 

This is opposed to the “living with COVID-19 strategy” that’s now being implemented throughout much of the world. The ethos of this policy is that the disease is shifting from a pandemic stage to an endemic stage and will likely never be eliminated. The virus still needs to be closely surveilled and managed, but lockdowns and other harsh precautions like we saw in 2020 are only used as a tool of last resort.

It was previously possible to argue China’s zero COVID policy was working when case numbers remained low compared to the rest of the world. However, with cases now surging, it’s harder to maintain that case – and cracks in the plan are showing. 

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Critics in the US have argued that the policy is authoritarian and has violated human rights. There have been accusations that countless people in China have been forcibly quarantined in metal boxes in an aggressive bid to control infections. Others have been told they must be fitted with electronic monitoring tags as part of the fight against COVID-19 in their local area.

This stringent control of the population has generated pockets of discontent in China. In a rare display of public dissent, protests have erupted this week at the world's biggest iPhone factory in Zhengzhou. Videos of the action posted on social media show workers marching and being confronted by people in hazmat suits and riot police.

As for why China is ardently sticking its guns despite the mounting trouble, it’s less clear. Some have argued there are some well-founded public health concerns behind the strategy, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it’s largely a matter of politics. 

Earlier this year, researchers and economists at S&P Global Market Intelligence speculated that China wouldn’t change its stance on COVID-19 control until the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party elected its new leader. By the time this important political event closed on October 22, Xi Jinping gained his third term as China's top leader at the Congress.

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Now his power is secured, we could potentially see some mix-up in the public health policy, although S&P Global Market Intelligence believes it’s unlikely we see any meaningful change before things have settled in 2023. 


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