Omicron Variant Causing New Challenges for China’s Zero-Covid Policy
Over the past two years, the world has alternatively applauded and criticized China for its approach to handling the coronavirus pandemic. During the peak of the outbreak, 960 million people were living under some form of lockdown when China first instituted their “zero-COVID” policy. The tough regulations were viewed as a success when restrictions were lifted after five months in May 2020. Individual cases were met with swift action, including shutting down Shanghai Disneyland for two days last November after a single guest tested positive for COVID-19. However, as Shanghai approaches two full months of a strict lockdown in the spring of 2022, it is becoming increasingly clear a zero-COVID policy is unsustainable with the Omicron variant.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, noted during remarks last Tuesday that the virus is drastically different from the original variant identified in Wuhan. “We know the virus better and we have better tools, including vaccines, so that’s why the handling of the virus should actually be different from what we used to do at the start of the pandemic.” Predicting the animus from China following his comments, Tedros added, “regarding their choice of policies, it is up to every country to make that choice.”
Global Balancing Act to Curb Omicron Transmission
Other members of the WHO have echoed support for Tedros’ comments. WHO Emergencies Director Michael Ryan recommended China reconsider its approach to curbing the virus and any measures to combat the spread must show “due respect to individual and human rights”. The WHO has acknowledged extinguishing COVID-19 worldwide is impossible. At the current moment, the focus is on lowering transmission and lessening the impact on society and the economy. “That’s not always an easy calibration,” continued Ryan.
President Xi of China has doubled down on the zero-COVID policy. The Chinese government has made it clear any critics will be punished.
WHO Chief Censored in China
China’s displeasure with the comments from the head of the WHO is apparent. Both the criticism of the zero-COVID policy and Tedros himself have been censored on popular Chinese social media sites Weibo and WeChat.
This comes as a surprising turn of events. The United States had initially criticized Tedros for his support of China’s extreme response to COVID-19. Then president Donald Trump went as far as to initiate the process of withdrawing the United States from the WHO. This decision was reversed by President Biden upon assuming the office. The United States has historically been the largest funder of the WHO.
Economic Fallout from China’s Zero-Covid Policy
Shanghai, China’s most populous city, is slowly making its way out of lockdown. Some shopping malls and markets have reopened. The next step is public transportation resuming operation for limited hours. There are several hundred cases being reported each day. However, this is significantly less than the tens of thousands reported during the peak of the outbreak.
Even if the Chinese government were to lift their domestic zero-COVID policy, the international forecast is not so good. Overseas travel, including freight forwarding, would likely remain severely hampered. The lack of a mass-vaccination program and drop-of-the hat lockdowns following Omicron-related cases has many companies reconsidering their presence in China.
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