Latest COVID-19 outbreak in China just weeks after the last one, pose challenge to its Zero-COVID strategy

China is facing yet another COVID-19 outbreak raising questions over the sustainability of the country’s stringent zero-Covid strategy. The fresh outbreak in Fujian province on China’s southeastern coast has infected more than 60 people, including 15 elementary school students since 10th September.

This outbreak comes on the heels of previous outbreak in the eastern province of Jiangsu emerged in late July, which infected over 1,200 people and spread to more than half of China’s provinces. The Jiangsu outbreak contained about two weeks ago was seen as the biggest challenge yet to China’s uncompromising zero tolerance policy on Covid-19 with some of the world’s strictest and stringent containment measures.

Putian city, most seriously affected in Fujian province has closed cinemas and gyms, sealed off some entries and exits to highways and told residents not to leave town as it battles a local COVID-19 outbreak. In Xianyou county of Putian, public transport and taxi services were suspended, as were buses and trains leaving the county. China’s state broadcaster said on Monday that virus situation in the city of Putian is “serious and complex” and it is very likely more new cases will emerge in communities, schools and factories. Besides Putian since Sept. 10, seven locally confirmed cases have been found in Quanzhou city and one in Xiamen, both in Fujian province. A man who completed 21 days of mandatory quarantine upon returning to China from overseas has been identified as the likely source of a new outbreak. He had tested positive on Friday, 37 days after entering China, according to state media. Chinese authorities did not reveal when, where or how the man caught the virus, but an incubation period longer than 21 days is highly unusual.

China’s border restrictions and mandatory quarantine requirements for overseas arrivals are among the strictest in the world. Surprisingly, China still does not allow people from 11 countries including India to enter its border on the pretext of COVID prevention even though it keeps getting imported cases through passengers from other countries. This has caused a discrimination among the countries and a confusion on the criteria adopted by China to issue visas to people from different countries. For more than a year, China had largely contained COVID-19 by tightly sealing its borders and containing local outbreaks with zero tolerance for infections. But despite stringent measures, a dozen cases of the Delta variant were detected among cleaning staff at Nanjing airport and soon spread to more than half of China’s 31 provinces which disrupted the recovery of the world’s second largest economy over the summer. Similar curbs can be expected if the current outbreak spreads beyond Fujian. Such a move could threaten tourism and consumption during the upcoming seven-day National Day Holiday starting 1st October.

Experts say the zero-Covid strategy is facing a problem of diminishing returns as the pandemic is prolonged. Experts say, it will become more and more difficult to sustain that approach, in terms of the time, the organizational energy, and the financial and economic pains it takes to reset cases to zero. No matter how stringent the travel restrictions are, imported cases are likely to trigger outbreaks in the country. This even triggered a highly politicized debate in China when Zhang Wenhong, a well-respected infectious disease expert in Shanghai and a widely trusted voice on the pandemic, told a concerned Chinese public in August to prepare to live with the coronavirus for a longer duration but he faced serious backlash at home. Writing on Chinese social media site Weibo, Zhang said it might not be possible for existing vaccines to completely eradicate Covid-19, and transmissions might still occur after everyone is fully vaccinated albeit at a lower rate and causing fewer deaths. He urged to find the wisdom to coexist with the virus in the long run.

Learning to live with the virus is becoming more sensible proposition across the countries. Most scientists believe Covid-19 is likely here to stay, and an increasing number of countries with high vaccination rates such as Britain and Singapore are opting for a strategy of coexistence, hoping it would eventually become a less dangerous endemic, like the flu. The move is intended to minimize social and economic disruptions that arise from aggressive containment measures. But in China, Zhang’s remarks drew a barrage of attacks online, with detractors accusing him of refuting the country’s much touted zero-Covid strategy and following western ideas. Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University had launched an investigation based on the complaints about Zhang about his thesis. The attack on Zhang underlined the highly politicized nature of discussions around China’s Covid-19 strategy.
Those political overtones were highlighted in a commentary published on August 7 by party mouthpiece the People’s Daily. In the article, former health minister Gao Qiang attacked the idea of “coexisting with the virus,” accusing the US and Britain of “disregarding people’s health and safety” and causing a resurgence of outbreaks. “This is a mistake in Covid decision-making caused by the defects in the political systems of countries like the US and the UK, as well as an inevitable result of advocating individualistic values,” wrote Gao, who was trained as an economist. Without naming Zhang, the former minister said he was surprised to see some Chinese experts advocating for the coexistence approach.

China has continued with its stringent containment efforts, which have been hailed by the ruling Communist Party as a successful model. But experts warned that public support and tolerance might wear off if the pandemic drags on. As per reports, police detained a teacher on August 11 in the eastern province of Jiangxi for 15 days for commenting on a news article saying the country can “coexist with the coronavirus,” according to a local government notice. But still, many experts, scholars and supporters have spoken to Zhang’s defense and expressed concern at rapidly shrinking space for public discussion on epidemic control strategy is concerning.
While China’s vaccination drive has seen around 70% of its population immunized, Beijing has made it clear that it will continue to rely on monitoring and infection control curbs since it believes mass vaccination alone will be insufficient to contain the delta variant. Zhang Wenhong, director of the department of infectious diseases at Huashan Hospital in Shanghai, said China still faces a great challenge in pandemic control amid the growing fourth wave globally. “We have maintained a very proactive but also cautious prevention policy. We will never allow the pandemic to spread in China,” he said when delivering a speech at Shanghai Tech University on Friday.

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