Singapore’s daily Covid-19 cases crossed the 20,000 mark again after five days of decline, and now many of my friends have been infected. Some netizens have joked that if you don’t already have a friend who has caught the virus, you don’t have any friends.
Fortunately, most of my friends have mild symptoms and are in good spirits. Only one person who plans to go back to China to work is worried that their work and daily life would be disrupted by infection-related discrimination.
Even as countries have reopened their borders, relaxed pandemic measures and moved towards living with the virus, China has gone against the tide in sticking to its dynamic zero-Covid policy. However, a Weibo post this week by Chinese epidemiologist and public health expert Zeng Guang is sending a different message.
“In the near future, at the right time, China will have its own roadmap for a Chinese-styled coexistence with the virus.” — Chinese epidemiologist and public health expert Zeng Guang
A ‘Chinese-styled coexistence with the virus’
On 28 February, Zeng Guang wrote in Chinese on Weibo that “dynamic zero-Covid” is China’s pandemic policy for a specific time period and cannot remain unchanged forever. He believes that although the current situation of epidemic prevention and control in China and the West is different, and the timing to lift anti-epidemic measures is bound to be different, “the same goal will be reached eventually".
Zeng said that it is the long-term goal of humanity to coexist with the virus at tolerable death and illness rates, and China should calmly and humbly observe and learn from the experiences and lessons of Western countries. He wrote, “In the near future, at the right time, China will have its own roadmap for a Chinese-styled coexistence with the virus.”
“Living with the virus” was first proposed in July last year by Zhang Wenhong, director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Huashan Hospital affiliated with Fudan University, which caused an uproar. Gao Qiang, a former minister in the Ministry of Health, and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) journal Qiushi rejected the approach. Zhang was criticised for being a defeatist and a “reactionary academic authority”. To ameliorate the situation, Zhang stressed in his next essay that China’s current pandemic strategy was the most fitting for China at that time.
Now, Zeng Guang, who is also a member of the National Health Commission’s high-level expert panel and former chief scientist of China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has again clearly proposed "living with the virus". Some see this as a signal that China’s policymakers are considering adjusting the dynamic zero-Covid policy. Most of the comments on Zeng’s Weibo post hope for an end to dynamic zero-Covid, showing a shift in public opinion.
“No more dynamic zero-Covid. The people on the ground are overworked, and the finances of poor regions cannot handle it. These two years have been tough.” — Chinese netizen
One comment that gained thousands of likes said, “No more dynamic zero-Covid. The people on the ground are overworked, and the finances of poor regions cannot handle it. These two years have been tough.”
Another netizen complained that border and port cities have to be locked down for one or two months each time there are cases, adding that “so many stores have been sold or closed down”.
Struggling domestic consumption
The pressure on China’s economy due to the dynamic zero-Covid policy is directly reflected in the economic figures. According to official statistics, the growth in total retail sales of consumer goods declined for three consecutive months at the end of last year, from 4.9% in October to 1.7% in December.
Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao stated at a press conference on 1 March that there is huge pressure to stabilise consumption this year. He emphasised that the government will firmly implement strategies to expand domestic demand, and “do everything possible” to spur domestic consumption.
While the Ministry of Commerce pledged to organise a series of consumer promotions to alleviate the burden for industries most affected by the pandemic, such as food and beverage, hospitality and retail, Wang added that these efforts are dependent on the proper execution of anti-epidemic measures.
In other words, if China does not relax its dynamic zero-Covid strategy, the fate of such consumption activities will still be at the mercy of the pandemic situation.
When the cost outweighs the benefits
Chinese Academy of Engineering academic Zhong Nanshan said in an interview last year that while it appears that the dynamic zero-Covid strategy is costly in the early stages of its implementation, some countries’ flip-flopping approach between opening up and reimposing restrictions is “actually more costly”.
Similarly, Zeng Guang also said on 28 February that while the Omicron variant greatly increased the cost of anti-epidemic prevention and control in China, the benefits of China’s strategy far outweigh the cost.
Hence, China’s policy will only change when officials deem that the cost of the dynamic zero-Covid policy has outweighed the benefits. In addition to economic considerations, they will need to address whether local medical resources can withstand the impact of the pandemic and whether people can withstand the mental stress of contracting the disease once this huge economy decides to live with the virus.
In the past, the dynamic zero-Covid policy was used to prove the superiority of China’s system, but the resulting low Covid-19 infection rate has now become its weakness.
Zeng pointed out that China is relying entirely on vaccinations to build an immunity barrier. However, booster rates, as well as vaccination rates among the elderly and chronically ill, have been too low, limiting the effectiveness of the immunity barrier. In the past, the dynamic zero-Covid policy was used to prove the superiority of China’s system, but the resulting low Covid-19 infection rate has now become its weakness.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong, which also adopts a dynamic zero-Covid policy, has been completely overwhelmed by the Omicron variant this year, with daily cases crossing the 50,000 mark, shaking the confidence of the mainland Chinese who initially supported opening up.
The situation in Hong Kong raises questions for mainland China’s second- and third-tier cities and vast rural areas, which are far less developed than Hong Kong. How much medical resources will be exhausted by an outbreak, and how much of a threat will it pose to social stability? Can the rich experience gained from implementing the dynamic zero-Covid policy over the past two years still come in handy when it becomes necessary to live with the virus?
Public opinion initially predicted that the CCP would only relax its measures after the leadership reshuffle in the autumn. But under numerous economic pressures, there is not much time left for policymakers to decide.
The dynamic zero-Covid policy has allowed China to take the lead in post-Covid economic recovery. But the policy shift is now met with greater resistance due to the strict measures that lasted two years, and officials are caught between a rock and a hard place.
It is already a challenge to discern, in the words of Zeng, when is the “right time”. If the change happens too early, a sudden surge in cases will hit the society hard; if the change happens too late, the economy will collapse from weak domestic demand. Public opinion initially predicted that the CCP would only relax its measures after the leadership reshuffle in the autumn. But under numerous economic pressures, there is not much time left for policymakers to decide.
Is China ready to live with the virus? We have yet to know. But restarting relevant discussions is undoubtedly an exciting start.
Related: China's zero-Covid era to end after Chinese New Year? | China needs to break free of its zero-Covid policy. Here's how. | Chaos in Xi’an: From zero-Covid to ‘zero cases in communities’ | Lessons from Xi’an: Why there is no one-size-fits-all solution to Covid-19 | Is a zero-Covid policy adversely affecting China’s economic recovery? | 'Zero-Covid' or living with the virus: Does Hong Kong know what it wants? | Has Hong Kong been half-hearted about its 'zero-Covid' policy?