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The zero COVID-19 strategy: the uncertain future of the pandemic in China

China is the most populous country on the planet to continue to cling to the policy of zero COVID-19which tries to isolate the country from the virus, strictly controlling the borders, restricting the entry and exit of people, implementing massive testing programs in the population and closing entire cities when a case is detected.

While the planet suffered the consequences of the infection, China did not allow the natural infection of its population, nor did it implement -unfortunately- an aggressive program of vaccination.

Omicron in China

With the arrival of omicron, the health authorities continued to bet on zero COVID-19, which implied quarantining entire cities this 2022.

Two unfortunate events have made the population begin to express their discontent through social networks and with popular protests.

The first occurred when a 3-year-old boy died of poisoning from an alleged gas leak in a residential complex, in the first week of November. The boy’s father claimed – in a post that amassed hundreds of millions of views on the Chinese social network Weibo – that workers at his residential complex tried to prevent the boy from leaving the building to seek treatment, causing a delay that he said , it turned out fatal. According to CNN, the posts by the father of the deceased child were removed from social media by the Chinese authorities.

The second occurred when ten people died in a fire on Thursday, November 24, in Urumqi, in the western region of Xinjiang. Quarantine measures would have delayed the arrival of firefighters.

“Having a population of 1.4 billion people without the protection provided by natural infection is very worrying.”

Both events have meant that –in a rare occurrence for a society as controlled as China’s– hundreds of millions of protest messages fill social media and hundreds of people take to the streets to protest. The strict policy of controlling free speech in China makes protests by any means very difficult.

Separately, riots broke out in Zhengzhou, home of the world’s largest iPhone factory, on November 22, partly out of fear of infection.

Cases on the rise and contradictions

On November 23, China recorded more than 30,000 cases of COVID-19, the highest official record for a single day since the pandemic began. For the first time in six months, health officials reported that several older adults with pre-existing conditions have died of COVID-19.

Due to the progressive increase in cases and the popular rejection of the unrestricted confinement of large cities, the Chinese authorities decided on November 11 to change their strategy and relax control measures. For that, they prohibited the tests of COVID-19 large cities, the sudden closure of large cities and other measures intrusive in the neighbourhoods. In exchange, they proposed that targeted controls be carried out, only in the neighborhoods affected by the infections and limit the impact on the lives and livelihoods of the inhabitants.

What is certain is that the local authorities are not following the national instructions. For example, without warning, the police ordered the closure of bars in Beijing. Shijiazhuang, a city of nearly 11 million people, is under lockdown and conducting massive tests for the virus. It is estimated that cities responsible for 20% of China’s GDP are now under some form of lockdown.

What will happen?

Having a population of 1.4 billion people without the protection provided by natural infection is very worrying. In addition, despite the fact that 89.8% of its population has received two doses of the vaccine, only 40% of those over 80 years of age have received a third booster vaccine, a dose that substantially reduces the risk of serious illness or death. As a comparison, it is estimated that almost 95% of Americans (and it is very possible that the same happens in Peru) have immunity through natural infection or vaccination.

China is one of the few countries in the world that have used almost exclusively its Sinopharm and CoronaVac vaccines, which, while relatively effective in preventing severe illness and death, have proven much less effective in protecting against infections, especially omicron.

More than 1.3 million people are under medical observation in community isolation centers, a far higher number than during previous outbreaks and due to a shortage of intensive care unit beds, the government on November 17 announced plans to convert the 10% of hospital beds in ICU beds.

In short, the future of the pandemic in China is a mystery. Could a severe epidemic occur and a new variant affect the rest of the world? Nobody knows, the fact is that both the virus and popular discontent are on the rise.

Source: Elcomercio

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