Jan 3, 2022 - World

China's "zero COVID" challenge is getting tougher

Testing in Xi'an. Photo: VCG via Getty

In New York City, 85,476 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. In Xi’an, which has a larger population, that number was 122. But it’s the central Chinese city that’s currently living under the world’s strictest lockdown.

Why it matters: The Chinese government is going to drastic lengths to maintain its “zero COVID” policy even with more contagious variants like Omicron emerging and the rest of the world largely learning to live with the virus — including countries like Australia and New Zealand that had previously tried to keep all cases out.

Driving the news: 12 days into a strict lockdown, residents of Xi’an are in most cases barred from leaving their homes, let alone the city, except for testing.

  • Cries for help have bubbled out from Xi’an on platforms like Weibo. Some residents say they haven’t received enough to eat or any deliveries at all, per CNN. Residents of one housing compound were evacuated en masse just after midnight on Jan. 1 and forced into quarantine facilities, the BBC reports.
  • “All we can do is add the shop owners’ WeChats and sneak out at night. Buying food is like being a thief,” one resident posted, per the FT. Local officials pledged Saturday to increase free deliveries of food and other essential goods.
  • At least 26 officials have been punished in Xi’an for their handling of the outbreak, according to the Economist. Two COVID-prevention workers were detained after being captured on video beating a man who left home to purchase steamed buns.

The big picture: The zero COVID approach has in many ways been a massive success. Life has largely gone on as normal in China as hospitals filled and death tolls climbed in the West.

  • Over 80% of the population is vaccinated, and authorities have deployed mass testing at scale where necessary (over 6 million tests were conducted in Xi’an in one day last week).

Yes, but: The dismount will be very difficult. China has only recorded a few cases of Omicron thus far, but the strain will be hard to keep out and contain. The Winter Olympics, starting Feb. 4 in Beijing, will be one major test.

  • There is little immunity in the population, and China’s domestic vaccines are less effective than the mRNA vaccines available in the West.
  • A study in Hong Kong found that one of the primary Chinese vaccines, CoronaVac, does not prevent infection from Omicron even with a booster (it can still prevent hospitalization and death).

What to watch: The Eurasia Group consultancy placed China’s zero COVID conundrum atop its annual list of global risks, released Monday.

  • The authors anticipate a cycle of infections, lockdowns, economic disruptions, state intervention and growing public dissatisfaction in 2022, with ripple effects for the global economy and the supply chain crisis.
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