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Thursday, Jun 01, 2023

Pain of ending ‘zero-Covid’ policy will put China on road to normality

Pain of ending ‘zero-Covid’ policy will put China on road to normality

China’s abrupt reversal after years of strict pandemic controls caught many by surprise, including local officials and the healthcare system. While there is much concern as the new approach takes shape, the return of quarantine-free travel and major events give reason for optimism.
China has officially moved away from its “zero-Covid” policy. Perhaps no event has been as warmly welcomed by its people since perhaps Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy in 1978.

Many people were caught by surprise with China’s abrupt reversal to what the rest of the world calls “living with the virus”. It isn’t just the 180-degree pivot to normality that caught everyone off guard, it is also the breakneck speed with which it happened.

One day China had thousands of test centres, quarantine on arrival, citywide lockdowns plus the requirement of a negative PCR test to enter public buildings and take public transport. The next day, seemingly overnight, most pandemic restrictions were lifted.

The gradual approach adopted by Hong Kong and most countries in opening up was surprisingly left by the wayside in favour of an aggressive, speedy reopening. Some people admire the big bold moves to normality

while others are concerned about a public health challenge.

China’s vaccination rate has been less than optimal. Only about 40 per cent of the most vulnerable elderly over 80 years old have received three doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Also, the efficacy of China’s home-grown vaccines in preventing serious illness and death has been called into question compared to mRNA vaccines used in many other parts of the world. This, combined with the highly transmissible Omicron variant, has created medical mayhem. China is not alone; all countries have gone through this during the pandemic.

There is a saying that sometimes things get worse before they get better. That could be an apt aphorism for China’s current situation.

According to China’s National Health Commission, almost 18 per cent of the population – around 248 million people – contracted Covid-19 in the first 20 days of December, with 37 million being infected on a single day. As much as 70 per cent of Shanghai’s population has been infected, with estimates suggesting 60 per cent of the country’s population will be infected at some point.

The dramatic U-turn in Covid-19 policy has caught many local government officials, funeral homes and crematoriums by surprise. Worse yet, the health system appears unprepared. Chaotic scenes similar to Hong Kong’s fifth wave have emerged across the country. The added worry is that during Lunar New Year and its massive annual migration, the virus will further spread to rural areas, which lack sufficient medical resources and intensive care units.

British data research firm Airfinity estimates that around 9,000 people in China are dying each day from Covid-19 and deaths could total 1.7 million by the end of April. Several other Covid-19 models and studies have predicted more than 1 million deaths in China through 2023, including researchers at the School of Public Health at Fudan University.

Amid concerns over potential new variants of Covid-19 emerging, many countries have introduced new testing requirements for travellers arriving from the mainland, Macau and Hong Kong. After a long-fought battle with Covid-19, they say they want to protect public health and healthcare infrastructure.

However, given that those countries have opened up to travellers from the rest of the world, I feel this reflects a prejudiced stance against China. It also recalls the early days of the pandemic in 2020, when countries around the world imposed travel restrictions and sealed borders. Then, as now, they were also fearful of travellers from China.

For Hongkongers caught up in this testing requirement, this comes at an inopportune time. We have just removed mandatory PCR tests pre-departure and on arrival for overseas visitors, opening up to the world after three years.

The good news about the swift dismantling of the “zero-Covid” policy is that there is now a clear road map to normality. We can all look ahead to major events such as Art Basel, the Hong Kong Marathon and the Oxfam Trailwalker. We can all look forward to quarantine-free travel to Macau and mainland China after a three-year hiatus.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the value of family, friends and even the routines we once took for granted. There is beauty in the ordinary and predictable, after all. Who would have thought that, one day, we would actually covet normality rather than exceptionality?
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