When the Chinese nationalist tabloid Global Times says China is experiencing the worst Covid-19 outbreak since the Wuhan crisis, you better be careful. For more than a year, the newspaper has pitted chaos outside China against order in the country. Now the alarm has sounded.
The delta variant has arrived in China and is sparking discussions over the direction of its zero tolerance strategy for Covid.
Until now, the policy here has been to wipe the virus out of the country – instead of living with a low number of infections. A year and a half ago, several small epidemics were fought by force, but with success.
Last week, two cases were confirmed in Beijing after nearly six months without official registration of the virus in the city. In three days, 654 people who could have been exposed to the virus were located and placed in medical isolation. These are individuals who, for example, were in the metro at the same time as the couple whose infection was confirmed.
In the neighborhood where the two live, 38,000 people have been tested and several condominiums have been quarantined, affecting more than 41,000 people. For two cases, in a city of more than 21 million inhabitants.
The new wave of Covid has reached at least 17 provinces across the country, where similar measures are being taken. The current situation shows that zero tolerance, with undeniable gains, also entails high costs.
Even in China, eliminating the virus is not trivial even though the country has contained the pandemic and has been virtually closed to foreigners since March 2020.
Many wonder when, after all, China will learn to live with the virus. Foreigners are speculating when the country will reopen its borders. Many observers, mixing analysis and personal preferences, argue that zero tolerance is untenable for much longer. They are betting that as Europe and the United States reopen their borders, China will be forced to follow. They repeat that the world’s greatest trading power will soon have to open up.
And will it really be? The economy is doing well. The closing of the borders did not stop the growth of Chinese GDP in 2020. Neither its exports nor the influx of foreign investment. The Chinese record of the fight against Covid-19 in the country is very positive. Why would Beijing be in a hurry?
But China needs an exit strategy for its zero tolerance policy, right? Need. And then again, with lenses blurred by personal values and desires, many observers see the current crisis as a great opportunity for Beijing to change strategy and start tolerating the virus at a low level, especially now that more than 1.7 billion doses of vaccines have already been administered in the country.
However, the lesson Chinese officials will take from the current crisis is the opposite: they will tighten, not loosen, the zero tolerance policy. The exit door of the current strategy has just moved away. Scheduled for February 2022, the Beijing Winter Olympics pose a problem in this context.
The Global Times would say that the current outbreak is not a sign of the failure of the zero tolerance strategy, but proof that it has worked well so far. I would say that by tightening a few screws it can get even better. The answer to the problem will be to tighten control – a local specialty, reinforced by the pandemic.
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