China’s Zero-Covid Reckoning – WSJ

A security guard wears a protective suit to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as he stands guard in Beijing’s Central Business District on Nov. 24.


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Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Remember when China’s handling of Covid-19 was supposed to be a global model? Western public health sages looked fondly at Beijing’s zero-Covid policy as an alternative to America’s messy democratic decision to live with the virus after its disastrous initial lockdowns. Well, so far.

As the third anniversary of the Covid outbreak approaches, China is reporting a record number of infections. The daily highs surpass Shanghai’s April gains, which were halted for two months. Outbreaks are raging across China and cities are once again imposing lockdowns. Nomura,

Japan’s real estate agency estimates that more than a fifth of the country is subject to movement restrictions.

The latest outbreak was unavoidable in a major continental country, given the increasing transmissibility of the virus as it mutates. China’s particular problem is that its draconian zero-Covid policy has left its people less protected with a vaccine or natural immunity. For nationalistic reasons, the Communist Party refused to accept Western vaccines that are more effective than China’s homegrown inoculations. Long lockdowns mean fewer people have been exposed to the virus and developed natural immunity like in the rest of the world.

China’s aging population is particularly vulnerable, as the country lacks the hospital capacity and ICU beds to treat widespread serious illnesses. According to one estimate, a full reopening could lead to 5.8 million intensive care admissions in a country with fewer than four ICU beds per 100,000 people. The designs of China’s rulers are opaque, but this could explain the party’s stubborn push to stick to zero-Covid, despite global evidence that lockdowns only slow the spread of disease while wreaking havoc on economic and social damage.

President Xi Jinping’s other problem is politics. An authoritarian regime can always do what it does best: monitor, coerce, imprison. But it lacks a mechanism to garner public support for the pain that can come with leaving zero-Covid. Democracies, for all their cacophony, have more flexibility to change policies and adapt when the public sees that the facts require it.

Meanwhile, signs are growing that the latest outbreak of Covid and the lockdowns are meeting more public frustration and resistance. The protest this week at the Foxconn facility that makes Apples

iPhones in the central city of Zhengzhou is an example that has made it to the international press. Surely there are many others in such a large country who have no way of making public complaints.

The new lockdowns will slow the Chinese economy, with growth estimates for the fourth quarter and the year falling below 3%. That assumes Chinese officials aren’t gilding the books. China’s official GDP target for this year was 5.5%.

China’s Covid and economic struggles may partly explain China’s recent less combative appearance on the global stage. But the US cannot assume that this will continue. The bigger lesson of China’s Covid reckoning is that lockdowns don’t work and that authoritarian regimes are not a model of public health or anything too many Americans think they are.

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Appeared in the print edition of November 25, 2022.

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