China has been experiencing a wave of coronavirus outbreaks attributed to the emergence of new, different variants, with the latest variant being Omicron. The variant has caused an exponential rise in the number of infections, surpassing the number of infections recorded at the
start of the pandemic. In an attempt to help curb the spread of the disease and mitigate the impacts of the pandemic, the Chinese government had introduced its “dynamic zero-Covid” policy, a public health measure based on the “control and maximum suppression” strategy. But, 2 1/2 years later, the virus has mutated, can this “zero-COVID” policy still work?
Dynamic Clearance has similar themes such as “Find”, “Test”, “Trace”, “Isolate”, and “Support” approaches. The policy entails the use of public health measures including contact tracing, border quarantine, mass tracing, mitigation software, and lockdowns to reduce the spread of COVID-19 immediately, in the wake of detection. The zero-COVID policy also entails two phases: the suppression phase and the sustained containment phase. The suppression phase involves the local elimination of the virus using strict public health measures. The sustained containment phase is the stage in which the social and economic activities resume, and public health precautions are used to curb the increasing outbreaks before they spread widely.
The adoption of the zero-COVID Policy in China has led to the implementation of containment measures such as mandatory quarantines for travelers. The Chinese government introduced mandatory quarantine for incoming travelers to prevent the reintroduction of the virus into the zero-COVID regions. Quarantining is carried out in designated places such as hotels. In theory, this idea is this will help prevent the further transmission of COVID-19 in China as some travelers may be positive for the virus. The Chinese authorities have also constructed specialized facilities at the busiest points of entry including Guangzhou and Xiamen.
Contact Tracing has been a beneficial strategy in the zero-COVID policy. This practice involves identifying people who have been in close contact with the infected persons. Health workers usually attempt to locate every individual suspected to have been in close contact with an infected person. Early identification of people who have been in close contact and isolating them is an effective way of curbing the spread of the coronavirus disease. Health code applications help identify close contacts through the analysis of Bluetooth logs which show proximity between devices.
Communitywide screening is another health measure effective for identifying the cases beyond the transmission chains. Health care professionals usually conduct testing during outbreaks to identify the infected people including those showing no symptoms of the virus. For faster screening, a pool testing method is employed. Pool testing typically combines five to ten samples before testing and retesting all patients who test positive in each batch.
Fast forward to April 2022, the zero-COVID policy in China is testing its limits. Authorities have already been forced to revise the rule requiring all Covid-19 patients to be hospitalized. This change of strategy seeks to minimize the risk of overwhelming the health care system. Additionally, the revising of the rules aims at keeping the general public involved in the containment process. The prolonged disease containment measures have seen the general public develop weariness, threatening to jeopardize the current operations.
The outcome of the policy appears to be taking longer than expected as there doesn’t seem to be a clear strategy forward. Chinese leaders have spent over two years focusing on containing Covid-19 and keeping the disease out of its borders. Despite the efforts, new more transmissible such as Omicron subvariant BA.2 variants keep emerging, impeding the implementation of the zero-Covid policy.
Another effort the government did undertake was introduce a large vaccination campaign. This was largely perceived as the victory point that would provide the acquired immunity to this highly infectious disease. One of the main aims of the vaccination drive was to relieve and ultimately liberate the country from the rigorous zero-Covid policy. Nevertheless, critical gaps still exist in Beijing’s vaccination effort, with questions arising regarding the efficiency of the vaccines in protecting vulnerable groups.
The zero-Covid policy faced serious setbacks, even in Hong Kong, which experienced a rampant outbreak of Covid-19. It overwhelmed hospitals, resulting in over 5,500 deaths this year. These deaths are mainly attributed to the low vaccination rate, especially among the elderly. Despite the significant efforts to implement a zero-Covid policy, other factors such as poor vaccination continued to increase the spread of covid. The elderly are regarded as the most vulnerable group in China, requiring considerable attention. However, this group has been very reluctant to get vaccinated.
Research conducted by the Chinese National Health Commission reveals that approximately 40% of the Chinese people above 80 years have not received a single dose of the Covid-19 vaccine while about 50 million citizens above 60 years have an inconsistent vaccination schedule. The statistics suggest this still to be an impediment to the success of the zero-COVID policy. Their seemingly successful immunization campaign, which has so far administered over 3.4 billion doses among the 1.4 billion citizens, is yet to realize its full potential.
The low turnout for vaccination among the elderly group in China can be attributed to the lack of sense of urgency considering the low levels of infections that had earlier been experienced in the country. Consequently, the elderly did not consider Covid a top priority. Additionally, the reluctance to receive the vaccine among the elderly was prompted by fear of its side effects. Those with chronic ailments expressed fears of aggravating their health conditions despite the repeated explanations and assurance from their Chinese health experts.
China’s zero-COVID policy appears to have worked under lesser infectious variants but to a small extent considering the serious challenges it still faces. The elderly are an important part of society and have a significant impact on the success of the zero-COVID policy. But, the inadequate vaccination of the elderly indicates either a zero-covid policy shift or a strategy to get this vulnerable group vaccinated.
But, until then, the likely scenario are phased lockdowns in China throughout 2022 until the country addresses this underlying question.