The Chinese government’s recent decision to maintain its “dynamic zero-COVID” strategy, which aims to stamp out infections and prevent the virus from spreading through communities, has caused considerable controversy at home and abroad. In the West, it has been described by the mainstream media as based on “political considerations.” Meanwhile, in China, there are calls for adopting the kind of policy that prevails in the rest of the world.
Why did China choose to become perhaps the only major economy globally that refuses to live with the virus? Its rationale can be understood by looking at two dimensions: saving lives vs. personal freedom, and short-term vs. long run costs and benefits.
As the virus hits one Chinese city after another, tens of millions of people have been placed under lockdown. As a result, many people are unable to do things they enjoy doing. I, for one, as a resident in a low-risk community in Beijing, have not been able to eat at a restaurant or go swimming at a recreation center since the beginning of May. Moreover, I have been required to take more than a dozen PCR tests. Those living in high-risk communities have found themselves largely confined to the compound of their neighborhoods, or even to their apartments, for weeks. Worse still, some Shanghai residents have reportedly experienced difficulty in securing food and medical treatment unrelated to the virus.
And yet, despite all the difficulties and hardships, the great majority of common folks in China remain supportive of the government’s zero-COVID strategy. The alternative, if there is one, would be a major catastrophe. A joint study by Fudan University in Shanghai and the National Institutes of Health in the United States — published in Nature Medicine on May 10 — indicates that if the country’s strict zero-COVID policy were abandoned, 112 million people would become infected in China over a period of six months, with 5.1 million hospitalized and 2.7 million taken into ambulatory care units, or ACUs. Further, the study predicted, an Omicron wave could cause up to 1.6 million deaths in the country.
One critical contributing factor to such an eventuality is the fact that despite the high overall vaccination rate in China, vaccination coverage remains low among elderly people. Of the country’s 267 million people over age 60, 52 million are yet to be fully vaccinated. The most vulnerable — those over 80 years of age — are the least vaccinated, with only 20 percent having received the primary vaccination course and a booster shot. Apparently, lifting the restrictions amounts to an invitation to disaster, an intolerable outcome for the Chinese public.
The choice for the government is thus crystal clear — to do what is necessary to cut off the transmission links while trying to minimize its negative impact. Behind the government decision also lies a tenet in Chinese society holding that lives are the most precious thing on Earth. Thus the old Chinese saying “Saving a single life is better than building a seven-story pagoda,” which signifies its immeasurable beneficence. Considered highly humanitarian, saving lives demands that no effort be spared. For this reason, most Chinese see their reduced level of personal freedom as a small price to pay for the health and the security of life.
In this context, sticking to the zero-COVID strategy is tantamount to answering the call of the great majority of Chinese people. It is the only right response from a responsible government. Indeed, saving lives has been the government’s top priority in its fight against COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. It is not something novel in the politically sensitive year of the 20th Party conference, as some Western media have claimed. I remember reading a news item in 2020 about an octogenarian who was rescued in Wuhan with a medical bill approximately 30 times the annual disposable income per capita — all paid from state coffers.
The confidence of the Chinese public in the measures that the government has put in place has been bolstered by the country’s performance over the last two and a half years, as compared with the U.S. As of May 22, China, a country with a population more than four times that of the U.S., reported just 222,370 cumulative confirmed cases, 0.26 percent of the U.S. cumulative total, which stood at 84.935 million. In the same period, China recorded 5,217 cumulative COVID-related deaths, or 0.5 percent of the U.S. cumulative total, which ran to 1.03 million.
Life expectancy in China rose to 77.9 years in 2020, a 0.85 increase over that of 2019, while the U.S. has experienced a drop over the last two years to 76.6 years in 2021, its lowest in the past 25 years.
There is no denying that the zero-COVID strategy entails significant costs to both society and individuals. Grumblings among some residents under lockdown point to the need for — in the words of Premier Li Keqiang — a more “scientific and targeted” response. Overkill by some local officials should be prevented in the future so that the great cause of saving lives could be achieved at a minimum cost.
Another dimension to consider is that the government’s decision is concerned with the long-term costs and benefits of options vs. the short-term. The stringent measures have forced factories, hotels and entertainment venues in COVID-infected areas to close, and have severely disrupted supply chains. Consequently, Chinese economic growth has slowed considerably in the past month, threatening the country's annual target of around 5.5 percent for 2022.
However, the government believes that loosening restrictions now would be akin to dancing with tigers: It would lead to economic disruptions for an extended period of time, resulting in a prolonged economic slowdown. Consequently, the overall cost of co-existing with the virus both in terms of lost output and the human toll would far exceed those resulting from enforced restrictions. Given the tradeoff between short-term pain and long-term stability, the government opted to take the passing pain of a zero-COVID strategy, acute as it may be, rather than the enduring pain that living with virus would bring. In so doing, the government hopes, temporary shutdowns are traded for sustained economic growth.
The country has faced this sort of dilemma before. Back in the spring of 2020, with a nationwide shutdown in place, China’s economy initially contracted dramatically. But soon after the virus was wrestled to the ground, growth resumed, making the country the only major economy in the world to experience growth in that year, 5.1 percent annually during 2020 and 2021.
China’s stringent measures appear to be paying off. Shanghai, the epicenter of the current wave, reported just scores confirmed cases without a single community-spread case in the last few days, and was reopened on May 22. In Beijing, another major Chinese city severely affected by Omicron, things are looking up as well. Nationwide, case numbers have dropped below 1,300 a day on average over the past week. China is hopeful that it will see the light at the end of the tunnel soon.