What is it, why are people protesting and what’s next?

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China announced sweeping changes to its zero-COVID policy on Wednesday, a major policy change and a significant step toward reopening as pressure mounted on officials to reassess the increasingly unsustainable policy amid widespread public discontent and continued economic damage.

key facts

China announced wide-ranging relaxations in its zero-covid strategy, more fully, “dynamic zero-covid,” Beijing’s signature pandemic policy focused on eliminating the virus rather than simply keeping it at bay, including allowing home isolation for mild or asymptomatic cases and ease testing requirements.

The changes suggest that Beijing, which has implemented strict lockdowns, isolation (possibly in government facilities) and mass testing in areas where cases have been reported, is moving away from zero-Covid and beginning to align more with management-focused policies used in most from the other parts of the world.

The approach has been so strict that entire cities home to millions of people have been locked down for some cases of covid, with reports of shoppers and workers fleeing shops and factories to avoid being locked down.

The lockdowns are often much stricter than most of the world is aware of and some areas are protected and drones are used to ensure compliance.

There are numerous reports of residents struggling to obtain food, medical care and other essentials during lockdowns, as well as being prevented from leaving buildings during earthquakes and other disasters.

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Protests broke out in cities across China last week after 10 people died in an apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi. Authorities deny that the strict lockdown was a factor in the deaths, which many believe prevented people from escaping and help from arriving. Covid cases also reached a record. Although far from being the first Covid protests in China during the pandemic, the protests presented a particular challenge for President Xi Jinping, who has invested a great deal of political capital in the policy and continued to defend it as sound. Zero-Covid was the reason China did not suffer the same fate as many other countries during the pandemic, the officials reasoned. In a rare and unusual show of public defiance, protesters have openly criticized Xi over the policy and called on him to step down.

crucial appointment

Xi has repeatedly defended China’s zero-COVID policy, but has not offered or suggested a way out of the pandemic. In May, as he once again reaffirmed Beijing’s commitment to zero covid, Xi told officials to “unswervingly adhere to the general policy of dynamic zero covid.” China’s lockdowns have been “scientific and effective,” Xi said.

what we don’t know

There is no obvious way out of zero-Covid for China. The only natural endpoint for zero-Covid is the eradication of the virus that causes Covid-19. Most experts now believe that this is a dark and distant prospect and, if possible, it will not happen in the near future. Beijing’s difficulties stem from the fact that it is mired in strict lockdowns, which are meant to be temporary restrictions to buy time to implement longer-lasting strategies like vaccinations, because, unlike other countries, it has not used that time to build up immunity in the population. In the three years under the policy, China has failed to vaccinate its most vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, failed to upgrade its health care system to deal with outbreaks, and flatly rejected offers of effective mRNA vaccines from the West, touting the dubious efficacy of their local injections. Health experts said Forbes a deviation from policy would likely lead to large outbreaks, the scale and nature of which are difficult to predict and would depend on local circumstances and behavioral changes. The return of strict restrictions in the future cannot be completely ruled out, they added.


Given its low vaccination rates, lackluster injections, paucity of natural immunity from previous infections, and the spread of highly infectious variants like omicron, any deviation from zero-Covid could be catastrophic for China. Although unsustainable, Beijing’s strict and draconian measures have undoubtedly saved lives during the pandemic. China, which has been questioned about the accuracy of its figures, boasts one of the lowest per capita covid death rates. With more than 1.4 billion people, official figures report around 5,200 covid deaths in China since the pandemic began. About the same number have died in Idaho. Per capita case rates are also among the lowest in the world. Experts warn the country faces a “tsunami” of cases that could overwhelm hospitals and kill more than 1 million people if it changes course. Health analytics firm Airfinity predicts up to 2.1 million will die if the policy is lifted and said improving vaccine coverage among its sizeable elderly community will be key ahead of the opening.

key background

China’s adherence to zero-Covid is not just a domestic issue and Beijing’s approach can be felt far beyond the country’s borders. After the US, China is the world’s largest economy by a significant margin: its GDP is more than four times that of the third-largest economy, Japan, according to the International Monetary Fund, and it is the leading exporter world. The closure of factories and other economic hubs in China has global consequences, and the policy has caused supply chain problems and shortages around the world. The continued disruption also threatens the global economic recovery and Beijing’s strategy has prompted world economic and business leaders, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and the IMF, to urge Beijing to change course. Public health leaders, notably the head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have also criticized the policy as unsustainable and ineffective.

Other reading

China Faces Omicron ‘Tsunami’ If It Abandons Controversial Zero-Covid Policy, Researchers Warn (Forbes)

They trusted Chinese vaccines. Now they are fighting the outbreaks. (New York)

‘There’s no way we can open’: China’s Covid-zero exit plans fall apart (Financial Times)

China plans to ramp up vaccinations among seniors as tough Zero Covid strategy sparks protests (Forbes)

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