Worst Omicron outbreak in China reignites debate about exit from Zero-COVID policy
Beijing, Mar 31: China on Wednesday reported more than 8600 new domestically transmitted COVID-19 cases, again reigniting the debate on finding an exit path from its stringent "Zero-COVID" policy which is frustrating millions in lockdown and putting severe strain on the economy.
Tightened restrictions and targeted lockdowns have led many experts and residents to question the sustainability of such an approach as most parts of the world have started living with the virus after two years of pandemic which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
According to state media reports, since March 1, China has recorded more than 70,000 locally transmitted COVID-19 cases, mostly caused by the highly contagious Omicron and its sub-variant, with 28 provincial-level regions affected.
Epidemiologists said that such a rapid increase in cases in this short timeframe indicates the difficulty of quashing this wave quickly and returning the country to a state of zero-COVID as has been the case with previous waves, it said.
However, Chinese epidemiologists see a silver lining in the fact that most cases are asymptomatic with few severe cases and only two deaths in more than a year, providing an opportunity for China to explore ways for an exit of the pandemic.
They believe the experience accumulated during this outbreak will pave the way for China's future exit from the ongoing COVID management policy, although there are still gaps to be plugged in the country's response before further easing of current restrictions.
Zeng Guang, former chief epidemiologist of the Chinese CDC noted that it's a "tough battle" against the coronavirus but while upholding the principle of dynamic zero-COVID, it is time for the country to explore ways to cope with large-scale outbreaks, state media reported.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently emphasized on continuing to follow the "Zero-COVID" policy. "We must adhere to a zero-Covid strategy that is scientifically precise and dynamic to suppress the spread of the epidemic as soon as possible," Xi was quoted as saying in another article by state news agency.
The containment effort has come at a huge cost, stopping transport services and sometimes confining more than 10 million people to their homes has disrupted economic activity. Most foreigners are also still banned from entering China, and returning Chinese can face up to 28 days in a quarantined hotel. Despite that, China is not ready to get out of the "overall strategy" of zero-Covid amid debates on a possible exit strategy sprouting and getting crushed.
In the recent outbreak, the city of Shenzhen, known as China's "Silicon Valley" in South China's Guangdong Province, the financial hub of Shanghai in eastern China, and the northeastern province of Jilin are the newest hotspots. On Wednesday, Shanghai reported nearly 6000 new cases. SO far, Shanghai has reported more than 26,000 cases.
On Sunday, the city announced a two-stage lockdown of the city with mass testing to be conducted in the two halves. Jilin Province, which is in lockdown for nearly two weeks has recorded more than 30,000 cases since March. Jilin reported nearly 2200 new cases on Wednesday.
Again, there have been reports of mismanagement during lockdowns. The Chinese city of Changchun, capital of the COVID-hit northeastern province of Jilin, on Tuesday apologised to its 8.5 million residents for food shortages related to shutdowns and disruption caused by COVID containment measures.
Shanghai residents also complained online of difficulties in getting food as online delivery portals are overloaded.
A nurse suffering an asthma attack died last week after being refused access to emergency rooms closed for disinfection under COVID-19 restrictions. Shenzhen has resumed the work on Sunday after being in lockdown for one week.