The Washington Post

When ‘zero-covid’ meets omicron

China’s rigid pandemic tactics become more frenzied in the face of a new variant.

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EVER SINCE the coronaviru­s pandemic broke out in Wuhan two years ago, China’s leaders have responded with all the sharpedged tools of the authoritar­ian system they command: massive lockdowns, informatio­n coverup, widespread vaccinatio­n and a strict zero-tolerance policy against new infections, including rigid border controls. Now it faces the most severe test of all at the hands of omicron, the highly transmissi­ble variant.

Up until now, China’s leadership has boasted that its tight grip has produced a far more effective answer to the pandemic than the open societies of the West. The Global Times, a propaganda outlet, noted that the United States was hitting record numbers of new cases, along with Europe. “Both have chosen to ‘ lie flat’ irresponsi­bly in the face of the raging pandemic,” the paper said in an editorial, but China “will not lie down.”

China’s effort to defeat the pandemic on Dec. 22 resulted in a severe lockdown of Xi’an, a city of 13 million people, similar to the initial closure of Wuhan. Upon detection of the virus, officials banned most people from leaving their homes unless they had special permission. This has led to rising complaints of food shortages and a lack of access to medical care. Several hospital officials in the city were fired after reports that a woman eight months pregnant miscarried outside a hospital upon being refused care until she had tested negative for the virus. The Chinese government has spurred local officials to impose rapid and severe — but relatively targeted — lockdowns whenever infections crop up, a “zero-covid” tactic that appears to have averted large-scale spread. But on Jan. 11, there were signs this tactic had become more frenzied as outbreaks, including some of the first omicron cases, cropped up in Henan, Shaanxi and Tianjin provinces.

Omicron is far more transmissi­ble than delta or previous variants. Can China’s coercion and closed borders stop it? Will China’s “not lie down” strategy block a virus that has spread around the rest of the world in a matter of weeks? What will happen when the spring festival begins in February as millions of Chinese are on the move across the country? If a mass infection does break out, would China, which earlier attempted to cover up the Wuhan outbreak, be honest with its citizens and the world?

China’s population appears to have little natural immunity, but it has vaccinated more than 85 percent of its 1.4 billion people. However, uncertaint­y remains about the efficacy and durability of its two-shot vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, that use an inactivate­d virus to stimulate an immune response. Both were developed before omicron. China as of now has no MRNA vaccines available.

The Beijing Winter Olympics get underway in a matter of weeks. China has vowed to keep the Olympics in a “closed loop,” with the athletes and others walled off from the rest of the country. Is this possible? The next month or two will show whether China’s vaunted system of police-state restrictio­ns and harsh lockdowns can stand up to an airborne virus that knows no bounds.

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