Is zero-COVID policy a sustainable way to contain infections?

How long can China continue its “zero-COVID policy,” which completely controls the behavior of the public? If its economy slows down, there will inevitably be adverse effects on the world.

Coronavirus infections are surging in China, and the number of daily cases there continues to reach new highs. Most of the 25 million residents of Shanghai, the nation’s biggest city, have been prohibited from going out, in principle, under a lockdown.

The impact on economic activities is significant. Production facilities for electric vehicles from Tesla Inc. and factories for Apple Inc. in China have suspended their operations because staff cannot come to work. Airlines have canceled cargo flights one after another, as international airports could not secure personnel for loading and unloading.

China is not the only country facing supply chain disruptions and logistical gridlocks. The stagnation of corporate activities and consumer spending may make it difficult for China to achieve its economic growth targets, and also deliver a blow to countries that rely on Chinese markets and products.

It is true that China’s zero-COVID policy has significantly curbed the number of infected people compared to the United States, Europe and Japan. But it may be getting harder to completely contain highly contagious viruses, such as the omicron variant, in big cities like Shanghai.

Each time a new coronavirus variant appears, restrictions on residents’ social activities have become greater and more frequent.

China’s unique policies have cost the people dearly. Residents have expressed their exhaustion and frustration at the poor environments at facilities that isolate people who have tested positive for the virus, as well as the restrictions placed on entire communities even if one person is infected.

All nations share the challenge of balancing infection control measures with economic and social activities. Beijing adheres to the zero-COVID policy, despite many other countries moving to ease restrictions, because Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration has touted the curbing of infections as evidence of the superiority of the Chinese governance system and promoted it as one of Xi’s achievements.

Xi has ordered firm adherence to the zero-COVID policy, indicating his stance to pursue strict accountability for officials who allowed the virus to spread. He has also called for measures to reduce the impact on the economy and society, but people in charge on the front lines are reportedly pushing ahead with excessive restrictions in a bid for self-preservation.

Rigid policies may only result in the hiding of information and medical chaos, like that seen in Wuhan during the initial outbreak of the coronavirus.

It is not appropriate to use infection control measures as a tool to strengthen the Chinese regime. A flexible, scientific approach must be taken, through such measures as identifying the characteristics of viruses. Japan has knowledge based on its experience in dealing with coronavirus variants. Japan should propose to China that they cooperate in this regard.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 6, 2022)