Omicron Puts China’s Zero-Covid Strategy to Its Toughest Test

Over the past two years, China has used some of the strictest measures anywhere to keep Covid-19 out and long succeeded in holding numbers down. But as Omicron poses the biggest challenge since the start of the pandemic, the country is looking more boxed in by its own formula.

Beijing has repeatedly pointed to Western countries where the virus has run rampant as cautionary examples. But as the Omicron variant spreads inside China ahead of February’s 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, an uncomfortable reality is setting in: The country’s ability to keep the virus at bay has meant low levels of natural immunity. Vaccination rates are high, but how effective Chinese vaccines are against Omicron remains in question.

China has held fast to its “zero-Covid” strategy despite a mounting toll on its people and economy, and as other countries have moved away from lockdowns. The highly contagious Omicron variant will be harder to manage, health experts say, likely leading to more frequent and longer-lasting restrictions.

Tianjin, China, where a road was deserted on Monday, is embarking on a second round of testing everyone in the city of 14 million.


Associated Press

“Covid-zero is great when you’re at zero, but when you’re not, it can become very disruptive to the community,” said Ben Cowling, chair professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health.

Central-government authorities show no intention of changing their approach to Covid-19, which they continue to see as a success amid the Omicron surge, according to officials familiar with the government’s thinking. Beijing is concerned that any relaxation in controls could lead to a big breakout of coronavirus cases, given the relatively low efficacy of Chinese vaccines and remaining pockets of unvaccinated people in the countryside, some of the officials said.

“An outbreak would put a huge strain on the country’s resources,” said one of the officials, referring to China’s limited healthcare facilities, especially in rural areas.

On Sunday, authorities in Tianjin—a port city a half-hour from Beijing by high-speed train—said they had found two locally transmitted Omicron infections. A day later, two people some 300 miles away in Henan province were linked to the same transmission chain.

The discoveries kicked off a now-familiar choreography: lockdown, mass testing and warnings of further restrictions to come.

From mass tests to lockdowns, China is on high-alert to keep the coronavirus at bay ahead of the Winter Olympics. WSJ examines the zero-Covid strategy in the city of Xi’an to see how it has sparked backlash from residents and affected chip makers. Photo: Shao Rui/Zuma Press, Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Tianjin suspended train and bus service to Beijing and on Wednesday embarked on a second round of testing everyone in the city of 14 million. Henan has closed most schools and banned public gatherings, including temple fairs and other celebrations ahead of the Lunar New Year. Several local governments in the province of 99 million have issued stay-at-home orders.

Under President

Xi Jinping,

China has veered toward a more top-down approach to any issue, and local officials, fearful they might be punished if they let Covid-19 gain a foothold, tend to err on the side of aggressive interpretation of the central government’s policy instructions.

The strains the resulting measures are putting on communities throughout China were on display in the city of Xi’an, whose 13 million people have been ordered to stay in their homes for almost three weeks. Some complained of a lack of access to food. The account of a woman losing her unborn baby after waiting outside a hospital for hours for lack of a valid Covid-19 test sparked a wave of anger online in response to the harsh measures.

A checkpoint outside a residential block in Xi’an, China, where people have been confined to their homes.


Associated Press

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