Beijing steps in to avoid repeating Hong Kong’s Covid mistakes

In late February, Xi Jinping’s Covid czar traveled south to Hong Kong, where he witnessed panic and chaos sweep through the financial hub as body bags overflowed from intensive care units and morgues as the city struggled to find enough coffins.

Liang Wannian, who heads the National Health Commission’s Covid-19 response team, returned to Beijing 12 days later with no illusions: even under China’s zero-Covid policy, health systems could quickly be overwhelmed by Omicron, leading to mass casualties among elderly citizens .

China has registered more than 20,000 cases of the rapidly transmissible variant of the coronavirus since early March. It was ten million people locked in their apartment complexes and Factories have closedincluding in the southern technology center of Shenzhen.

The recent outbreak is frustrating Beijing’s efforts to escape it Zero Covid Policy more than two years after the first explosion of coronavirus cases from Wuhan.

Speaking to a senior Chinese Communist Party panel on Thursday, Xi said containment of the virus must be achieved at minimal cost, and advocated the use of more targeted measures to soften the economic blow.

However, he also instructed officials to focus on “early detection, early reporting, early isolation and early treatment,” and reiterated that China’s pandemic controls “demonstrate the benefits of CCP leadership and the socialist system.”

A worker wearing protective gear in Shanghai earlier this week
A worker wearing protective gear in Shanghai earlier this week © Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty

Underlying Beijing’s caution is fear of a fatal outcomeHong Kong’s failure repeated, but on a large scale.

Data released this week by China’s health authorities showed about 50 million Chinese aged 60 and older — 20 percent in that age group — were not fully vaccinated. Two-thirds of severe Covid-19 cases in China are in the elderly who are unvaccinated.

Jerome Kim, the Seoul-based director-general of the International Vaccine Institute, said vaccinating people “at greatest risk of death” is crucial if China is to halt the spread of Omicron and overcome its unrelenting lockdowns.

“You don’t want to get into the Hong Kong situation where 70 percent of the elderly have chosen not to get vaccinated for whatever reason,” he added.

While China has shipped 3.2 billion vaccine doses to its 1.4 billion people, they exist doubt about its vaccination coverage as well as the effectiveness of the country’s vaccinations.

“Against older variants, and especially at a time relatively close to vaccination, they said the vaccines were effective. How that works against Omicron now, six to nine months after the first vaccinations, is a second question,” said Kim.

Some health experts believe China should buy foreign-made vaccines that are more advanced mRNA technology, such as those made by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna. Beijing has yet to approve the BioNTech vaccine for general use, despite an agreement with Chinese company Fosun to supply 100 million doses to the country.

Elsewhere, for example in Hong Kong, experts have recommended that those who received two doses of Sinovac receive a BioNTech booster shot because the Chinese vaccine, which uses the older inactivated virus technology, is less effective against Omicron.

“China has not been exposed to the virus. So if the virus does get in, anyone who isn’t vaccinated is really at risk, too,” said Karen Grepin, a public health policy expert at the University of Hong Kong. Unlike in other countries that have suffered mass outbreaks, “the unvaccinated are completely immunologically naïve”.

There are signs that government initiatives to speed up immunization for older people are having an effect.

Medical staff at a local vaccination center in the capital’s Daxing district said many elderly people had recently received their first vaccination, while another in Chaoyang was running out of vaccinations every day due to rising demand.

However, vaccination reluctance is still widespread among some groups of older people and their families.

At a retirement home in southwest Beijing’s Fangshan district, staff said only about 50 out of 120 residents had received two doses of the vaccine. “It’s their families who are reluctant to get them vaccinated, not the elderly themselves,” said one care worker.

At another facility, also in Fangshan, most residents received two shots, but others had resisted receiving a single dose for fear of complications from underlying diseases. “There are people who are afraid,” said one employee.

Studies have found older people in China are more hesitant to be vaccinated than other adults, with concerns about vaccine safety and lower risk of infection under Beijing’s zero-Covid strategy reducing uptake.

“Just like the situation in Hong Kong. . . partly out of complacency, they felt good that they had been so successful in containing the virus,” said Jin Dong-yan, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. “The same applies to China. . . Because of zero-Covid, people think there is no need to get vaccinated.”

Xi’s recent intervention followed a series of changes to the zero-Covid policy. These included expanding the range of approved test kits, reducing isolation times for those who have recovered and raising the bar on hospitalizations. However, all mild and asymptomatic cases will continue to be held in quarantine facilities.

Most analysts believe there is little chance that the state’s tight pandemic controls will completely disappear over the next 12 months. This year is crucial for Xi as he breaks precedent to cement a third five-year term in power. In a year when social and political obedience is paramount, personal liberties are being sacrificed for stability.

Ting Lu, Nomura’s top China economist, said Beijing’s recent changes are neither an end to zero Covid nor a roadmap for a new strategy of living with Covid. “We maintain our view that the likelihood of a release in Beijing is high [zero-Covid] Grip before March 2023 is very low,” he added.

Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding and Nian Liu Beijing steps in to avoid repeating Hong Kong’s Covid mistakes

Adam Bradshaw

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