What exactly is the function of China’s zero-Covid lockdowns, which individually and cumulatively now are far bigger than even the Wuhan lockdown in early 2020, when the disease was poorly understood, treatments hadn’t been identified, and vaccines were still months away?
The current lockdown in Shanghai and a recently relaxed one in Shenzhen forced 43 million people to remain in their homes and rely on government food deliveries. These were the biggest shutdowns the country has yet tried, aimed at two vital entrepôts of the global economy.
The data China publishes are hard to make sense of. Daily reports indicate upward of 95% of cases discovered in relentless mass testing have been asymptomatic. Of the 130,000 or so cases reported in Shanghai since March 1, 5,000 were said to have been serious enough to require medical treatment. Two people were reported to have died. Government officials say the ratio applies nation-wide. Why lock down for a disease that is so mild?
The puzzle is both nagging and urgent given damage to China’s and the global economy over a disease that is cold-like, not even flu-like, in most cases. One theory, bruited even on Chinese social media, is that the government is bending over backward, whatever the cost, to preserve a zero-Covid talking point that Xi Jinping has adopted as proof of the superiority of Chinese governance.
The alternative explanation is that China’s leaders are still genuinely terrified of a potential healthcare meltdown. Though 90% of citizens have been vaccinated, 40% of 80-year-olds have yet to receive a shot—27 million of the most vulnerable people. In Shanghai, a city of 26 million, if Omicron were to spread as rapidly as it did through some highly vaccinated Western populations, the result might be Covid patients and others dying for want of care in a jammed-up, broken hospital system.
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This would shower disgrace on the Chinese Communist Party and Mr. Xi, who, in his eagerness to be the next Mao, has made himself the locus of all responsibility and therefore all blame. And yet the logic is inescapable: At some point the risk must be taken because there’s no other way to escape the zero-Covid trap. Add the fact that vaccine protection wanes, and the question pointedly becomes, “If not now, when?” Is Beijing holding out for the day when 1.4 billion Chinese can be hooked up to a continuous vaccine drip?
By every report, Shanghai healthcare is already strained by a government requirement that anyone testing positive and their close contacts be hospitalized or, more recently, placed in a special quarantine facility staffed with doctors and nurses. Exhausted medics are standing guard over tens of thousands of healthy patients who have nothing to do but share their aggravation on social media.
Another problem has finally begun sneaking out of the corner of Chinese officials’ mouths: 24 months of zero-Covid propaganda has caused millions of Chinese not only to exaggerate Covid’s deadliness, but to be on the edge of panic about potential lockdowns, having heard repeated reports of hunger, missed medical treatments and the inability to bring help to loved ones.
So we’re left with a perplexity. Is China telling us it has failed and cannot succeed at protecting its healthcare system as the West has done, by vaccinating, by shielding the most vulnerable, and so permitting zero Covid to end? Or has the Communist Party trapped itself in a double bind because it made a national trophy out of not allowing transmission to happen and now can never allow transmission to happen as part of a sensible endgame?
Shanghai’s eight-day lockdown recently was extended indefinitely. And then what? Some 26 million people will be as vulnerable as they were when it started. A lesson the West has learned, Omicron will spread even in fully vaccinated and boosted populations, a description that Shanghai may never get closer to fitting than it does right now.
The irony is more than sad, it’s a diagnosis of authoritarian madness. Holding off Covid’s spread for two years while vaccines and treatments were developed should be a great achievement. The trophy should be going on the shelf by now. An appreciative public should be returning to normal life reconciled to a now-tamed new coronavirus.
The sane outcome may be impossible because the regime has caused its zero-Covid ideology to morph into something insane. If transmission must be suppressed and anything else is a defeat, then the Communist Party has set a game for itself in which no victory is possible.