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Published: 14:16, May 30, 2022 | Updated: 14:16, May 30, 2022
China's anti-pandemic policy justified
By Zhang Jun
Published:14:16, May 30, 2022 Updated:14:16, May 30, 2022 By Zhang Jun

Editor's note: China's dynamic clearing policy has helped save lives and kept the novel coronavirus largely at bay. The pandemic, if out of control, will hinder growth, too. In its fight against the pandemic, China puts people first and follows a people-centered development philosophy to minimize the impact of the pandemic on economic and social development. Three experts share their views on the issue.

(MA XUEJING / CHINA DAILY)

A tough decision to lock down Shanghai, China's largest city, shocked the world. After weeks, and despite a sharp decline in infections, Shanghai's lockdown has imposed enormous costs on the city and its residents. Given that the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus has a low mortality rate among the vaccinated, and much of the rest of the world has been convinced to shift their anti-pandemic policies from lockdowns and movement restrictions to mass immunization, critics wonder why China's dynamic clearing policy is here to stay.

So, when the novel coronavirus, with its comparatively high mortality rate, began spreading in Wuhan in 2020, the Chinese government had little choice but to adopt a wartime model, shutting down the city and mobilizing additional resources (including medical personnel) on an emergency basis.

The Wuhan lockdown, which lasted 76 days, was vital under those circumstances. But if China had had an epidemiology-backed disease-outbreak response system in place, the severest restrictions probably could have been avoided, or at least shortened considerably.

In the more than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, China has developed and implemented just such a system for the whole country, including regular testing and contact tracing, centralized quarantine and the use of big data to prevent the spread of the virus between cities. As Shanghai's residents can attest, though this has not eliminated the need for lockdowns, it has enabled far more limited and targeted closures. Even as Shanghai's economy takes a hit, the rest of China continues to function.

While China's pandemic-control policy remains more proactive and stringent than those in most other countries, the results speak for themselves. The Chinese mainland has so far reported just 222,000 confirmed cases and 5,200 deaths from COVID-19, and avoided major damage to its economy. And it has good reason to impose tighter measures and not to abandon its dynamic clearing approach right now.

For starters, vaccine uptake among China's elderly has been rather modest. Only about half of the people aged 80 or above have received their primary vaccinations, with less than 20 percent of them having also secured a booster. Vaccine coverage among children is also lower than expected.

Moreover, there are huge urban-rural and regional disparities, not only in terms of economic dynamism and openness, but also in the availability of social services and healthcare resources. Add to that the roughly 500 million people with only a middle-school education level (or lower) and those living in less-developed regions, and the risks implied by loosening restrictions are huge.

Some estimates show that, based on the evidence from the United States and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the mainland could face a wave of 200-300 million infections without non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). Even with the government's capacity for mobilization, many regions would not be able to cope with a surge in COVID-19 cases. Runs on medical resources and a sharp rise in elderly deaths could be expected.

It is true that the dynamic clearing approach is costly; and there will not be zero infections. Rather, the strategy suggests a strong policy mix of NPIs and immunization, and an emphasis on avoiding lockdowns. Importantly, it requires local governments to rely on an epidemiology-backed system to respond early to cluster outbreaks and stop the spread of the virus. Undoubtedly, such an approach is validated by China's strong capacity for resource mobilization.

This approach is characteristic of Chinese policymaking. China's political leaders always have longtime horizons and are more willing to incur short-term high costs to advance long-term development goals. Especially in the midst of crises, they find solutions which-though often costly in the short termenable the country to return to its path.

As a result of this strategy, which forms the basis of the country's political, economic and social resilience, China's economy has consistently avoided being hit by external shocks. As Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry have observed in Mao's Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, this "guerilla policy style" emerged from the long revolutionary years, when the Communist Party of China was often at a distinct disadvantage.

The key to such an approach in a large, multifaceted framework is to allow for flexibility and to delegate critical responsibilities to local agents who have the authority and incentives to optimize policies to meet local needs. For example, in implementing the dynamic clearing policy, local governments have been able to seek the best balance between economic growth and public-health imperatives, based on their capabilities and resources.

This explains why some local governments in less-developed and rural areas have often imposed more restrictive policies. For them, the opportunity costs of blanket measures are simply lower than in the developed coastal cities that drive China's economic growth.

For the same reason, some areas have taken a highly targeted approach, with restrictions applied to a single administrative district, neighborhood, or even apartment building, thereby minimizing economic disruption. Such an approach enabled Shanghai to operate effectively for two years before the authorities determined that a lockdown was needed based on epidemiological surveys.

For a metropolis of 25 million people with a high exposure to pandemic risk, this is a truly extraordinary feat. Shenzhen, which borders hard-hit Hong Kong and has a large population, dynamic economy and open ports, has achieved similarly impressive virus containment. While it introduced a weeklong lockdown in March, it has since reopened.

Of course, no strategy is airtight. The lockdowns in Shanghai and Shenzhen were imposed to prevent the highly transmissible Omicron variant from arriving.

But for the near future, China is not likely to give up its policy mix of NPIs and immunization.

Likewise, China will continue to adapt its pandemic-response policies and reduce the need for NPIs as it develops more effective vaccines and boosts immunization rates.

Project Syndicate

The author, dean of the School of Economics at Fudan University, is director of the China Center for Economic Studies, a Shanghai-based think tank.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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