Millions under lockdown. Mass testing. Deserted streets and public transport at a standstill. Scenes of daily life in many Chinese cities today eerily recall the original Wuhan outbreak of late 2019 and early 2020, when coronavirus and COVID-19 first made headlines around the world.
But, more than two years later, China is battling a renewed surge in infections, fueled by the Omicron BA. 2 sub-variant, also known as stealth Omicron. The use of tough containment measures, from a playbook dating to the very beginnings of the pandemic, underscores official commitment to a zero-COVID strategy that shows no signs of wavering.
In most other countries, China’s caseloads would not be considered a national emergency: authorities on Mar. 15 reported 1,860 symptomatic infections and 1,338 asymptomatic ones. But the nation’s elderly population is vulnerable—by some estimates there are 15 million people over 80 in China who have not been vaccinated—while the number of ICU beds per 100,000 population is low by the standards of advanced economies. Fearful that stealth Omicron could lead to an uncontrollable outbreak, with fatalities potentially numbered in the millions, authorities have pulled out all the stops. Makeshift hospitals and isolation facilities are mushrooming.
The epicenter of infection is the northeastern province of Jilin, on the border with North Korea and home to 24 million people. On Mar. 14, the entire province was put under lockdown—the first time the measure had been applied to a whole province since the Hubei lockdown of 2020.
The day before, the 17.5 million inhabitants of the city of Shenzhen were also told to stay home. Its outbreak has been sparked by imported cases from neighboring Hong Kong, where experts estimate that 3.6 million people—almost half the population—have had the virus.
Shenzhen is an important tech hub, home to major players like Oppo, Huawei, and leading iPhone assembler Foxconn. The Apple supplier has decided to suspend operations in the city until “advised by the local government.” Many other cities in mainland China are under full or partial lockdowns, including the financial capital Shanghai. Cases have been reported in more than half of the country’s 31 provinces.
The effect of the latest restrictions will be felt beyond China’s borders. “The lockdown measures imposed on some of the major industrial hubs like Shenzhen—that is not only going to affect the Chinese economy, it’s also the cause of disruption to the global supply chain,” says Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council of Foreign Relations.
Will China move away from its zero-COVID policy?
While some may have expected the highly transmissible BA.2 sub-variant—now China’s predominant strain—to challenge the limits of zero-COVID, authorities are continuing to bet big on the strategy.
“Only by adhering to such an effective containment policy, can China tackle the epidemic situation immediately upon detection of cases, preventing mass infections, severe illness and deaths, and avoiding straining medical resources,” said the official Xinhua news agency, even as China reported some of its biggest one-day spikes since Wuhan.
Experts say that zero-COVID isn’t purely a public health issue but a political one too, given that any departure from the policy may be construed as an admission of fallibility on the part of China’s leadership during a sensitive year.
Though past retirement age, President Xi Jinping is widely expected to secure an unprecedented third term in 2022. If China reneged on its zero-COVID approach, “Then it’s difficult for them to present it as anything but a failure of a flagship Xi Jinping policy,” Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, tells TIME.
Some top officials have faintly hinted at change. On Mar. 5, Premier Li Keqiang told the National People’s Congress that China’s pandemic strategy “will be constantly refined.” Deputy director of the State Council’s research office, Xiang Dong, has said that it is time to stop both “relaxed and excessive prevention and control tendencies.”
Earlier, the former chief scientist of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Zeng Guang, posted on social media that it was “the long-term goal of humanity to co-exist with the virus.”
But for now, meaningful debate is being quashed in the face of doubling caseloads.
“Getting cold feet about a worthwhile endeavor that the country has been sincerely pursuing is tantamount to flinching at the final attempt,” Xinhua editorialized. “The result may prove catastrophic to China and the world. China will stick to the dynamic zero-COVID policy until the battle against the virus is won.”
As Tsang puts it: “If Xi Jinping feels vulnerable, he is likely to circle the wagon.”
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