China's major Covid dilemma as rest of the world opens up

·4-min read

On Monday, Chinese authorities locked down a mega entertainment centre in the city of Chengdu, forcing at least 30,000 people to take Covid-19 tests before they could leave.

Some managed to escape but they were no match for the draconian tactics enforced by Beijing – a government which has taken a zero-tolerance approach to Covid in the community – and were quickly swept up.

It's the second such incident in as many weeks after Disneyland in Shanghai was shut down with guests trapped inside after a sole case had visited the park.

The latest stringent action once again begs the question – how long can China go on like this?

As the rest of the world begins to open up and live with transmission of the virus amid largely vaccinated populations, China remains committed to its unwavering Covid-zero strategy, even with 77 per cent of its 1.4 billion population double vaccinated.

Covid testing at Shanghai's Disneyland. Source: Getty Images
Last week visitors at Shanghai's Disneyland were trapped inside until they were all tested. Source: Getty Images

Yet the Delta variant has posed a different threat to China with outbreaks now routinely occurring across the country before being swiftly stamped out through tight localised lockdowns, tracing and mass testing.

And while there is support from within China of the tight borders enforced, questions are beginning to be asked about how sustainable and necessary such an approach is.

As the virus circulated in several cities in China's southwest prior to its Golden Week holidays at the start of October which sees half a million people travel around the country, state-media tabloid the Global Times called for the holidays to go ahead, fearing a knee-jerk reaction to infection was imminent.

But on Tuesday, the Beijing mouthpiece realigned with the nation's official stance, publishing a story which featured comment from several epidemiologists justifying the harsh restrictions imposed on residents.

An anonymous senior public health expert said if China abandoned its approach there would be a "catastrophic outcome".

People in masks on busy subway carriage. Source: Getty Images
There is a sense of normality across China – until Covid is detected in the community and draconian meausres are once again imposed on residents. Source: Getty Images

Chinese vaccines likely fuelling fear

Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University, told Yahoo News Australia China's weaker vaccines likely played a role in Beijing's decision making.

"[The Chinese vaccines] are less able to protect people from general infection so that means they don't have that same level of control."

"It's reducing the risk but it's not enough to give them control of the virus in the community and that's the challenge."

Research shows the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines in use in China are significantly less effective in preventing serious illness or death and left one in four vaccinated people vulnerable, Prof Bennett said.

Comparing China to Western Australia, she said it was evident that much like the Australian state, the Communist Party of China was "not comfortable in being able to control the virus and keeping it at low levels, and to pull back from these most extreme transmission reduction strategies."

Fatigue setting in for China

And while Prof Bennett noted the extremes China were going to were "incredibly impressive", she said it was "exhausting".

"It's not infallible and Delta will find any weak points."

Professor Chunhuei Chi, the director of Oregon State University’s centre for global health, told the Guardian it was evident residents' resolve was "starting to wane".

People line up for Covid tests in China. Source: Getty Images
Enforced testing is commonplace still as the Delta variant continues to pop up in the community. Source: Getty Images

Prof Bennett said it appeared China was "buying time" as they work on a next generation vaccine or booster shots but feared this was untenable due to a lack of timeframe moving forward.

She said it was difficult to tell however, whether China was being over-cautious with their approach.

"You have to ask is it overly risk-averse? Or is it actually reflecting how difficult it is for them to control outbreaks that they have to get on top of them that early by going to extreme measures."

Heading into winter and with people spending more time in poorly ventilated areas, Chinese experts warn if the virus was allowed to circulate, the consequences could be devastating.

Prof Bennett noted the living conditions of residents in densely-populated mega cities such as Chongqing and Guangzhou would only accelerate transmission leaving the nation susceptible to a large-scale outbreak.

"A large population and limited medical resources leave China no choice but to insist on a zero-tolerance policy," Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital, told the Global Times.

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