Scott Kennedy, senior adviser to the Washington DC think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, visited China in October. “While I was there, it became clear to me that in particular the authorities understood that they needed to get out of zero Covid and that plans to be implemented after the 20th Party Congress were on the way,” he says. This happened later that month and solidified President Xi Jinping’s third term.
In fact, China relaxed some zero Covid rules in early November, including softening quarantine restrictions for overseas travelers. But when cases escalated, authorities restored curfews.
China faces several specific problems that will exacerbate the spread of the virus if it repeals the policy altogether. The country is an outlier, as its elderly population, who is one of the most at risk, is somewhat reluctant to get vaccinated: the low intake may be due in part to the low presence of the virus, people’s negative experiences with healthcare, Kennedy says. system and the unfounded belief that traditional Chinese medicine provides a safer alternative.
And the country has 3.6 intensive care beds for every 100,000 people, far fewer than in high-income Asian countries like South Korea and Taiwan, or in the United States and Europe. So if people become very sick with Covid-19, it can quickly overwhelm hospitals and lead to higher death rates.
Xi Chen, professor of health policy and economics at Yale University, said that China has allocated medical resources to quarantine centers and that people should go there even if they do not show symptoms or show mild symptoms. “I think it’s just a waste of resources,” she says. Allowing people to be quarantined at home will free up some healthcare workers to vaccinate the vulnerable or care for the critically ill.
On November 29, Chinese officials said they would focus on giving more booster vaccines to vulnerable populations. And Chen says incentives for the vaccinated could change the game for getting more people vaccinated. As testing mandates become burdensome, allowing those with a booster vaccine to test less could cause more people to roll up their sleeves for another vaccine. “People don’t want to take a third dose because they have no incentive to do so,” says Chen. “Civil unrest and protests mostly oppose isolation and frequent testing.”
These protests are the most significant protests the country has seen in decades and are a harsh criticism of the Xi administration, as well as the lack of coordination between central and local governments. “These protests are the results of a relentless effort to get out of zero Covid,” Kennedy says. “I am amazed at how clumsy the Chinese government’s efforts are.”
Kennedy says the policy may not continue through the winter, and Chen thinks China could potentially reopen by spring if it moves quickly to achieve higher booster vaccination rates among vulnerable populations. “Either the Chinese government will proactively try to get out of zero Covid, as they quietly tried to do earlier this month, or it will kick and scream into a post-zero Covid. era,” says Kennedy.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Conrad.