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

Liang Wannian, head of the Covid-19 response team at the National Health Commission, returned to Beijing 12 days later without illusions: Even under China’s zero-covid policy, health care systems could quickly be overwhelmed by Omicron, causing massive casualties among the elderly. citizens would cause.

China has registered more than 20,000 cases of the rapidly transmitting coronavirus strain since early March. Tens of millions of people have been locked in their apartment complexes and factories have been shut down, including in Shenzhen’s southern technology hub.

The latest outbreak is frustrating Beijing’s attempts to escape its zero-covid policy more than two years after the first explosion of coronavirus cases from Wuhan.

Xi told a top Chinese Communist Party body on Thursday that virus containment must be achieved at minimal cost and approved the use of more targeted measures to mitigate the economic blow.

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

An employee who wore protective clothing in Shanghai earlier this weekAn employee wearing protective clothing in Shanghai earlier this week © Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty

Underlying Beijing’s prudence is fear of a lethal outcome, repeating Hong Kong’s failures, but on a massive scale.

Data released this week by Chinese health officials shows that about 50 million Chinese people aged 60 and older — 20 percent in that age bracket — had not been fully vaccinated. Two-thirds of severe cases of Covid-19 in China involve elderly people who have not been vaccinated.

Jerome Kim, the Seoul-based director general of the International Vaccine Institute, said vaccinating people “at the highest risk of death” was critical if China was to stop the spread of Omicron and move beyond its brutal lockdowns. .

“You don’t want to be in the situation that Hong Kong was in where, for whatever reason, 70 percent of the elderly decided not to get vaccinated,” he added.

Although China has delivered 3.2 billion doses of vaccine to its population of 1.4 billion, there are doubts about the coverage of its vaccinations and the effectiveness of the country’s shots.

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

Elsewhere, such as in Hong Kong, experts have recommended that those who received two doses of Sinovac receive a BioNTech booster 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 when the virus comes in, anyone who is undervaccinated is also very vulnerable,” said Karen Grepin, a health policy expert at the University of Hong Kong. Unlike in other countries that have suffered massive outbreaks, “the unvaccinated are completely immunologically naive”.

There are signs that government initiatives to speed up vaccinations for the elderly 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 shot, while another in Chaoyang had been out of injections every day due to rising demand.

However, some groups of elderly people and their families are still hesitant about vaccines.

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

In another facility, also in Fangshan, most residents had two shots, but others had resisted a single dose, fearing complications from underlying diseases. “There are people who are afraid,” says one employee.

Studies have shown that elderly people in China have a greater hesitancy with vaccines than other adults, with concerns about the safety of the injections, as well as the lower risk of infection under Beijing’s zero-Covid strategy that reduces uptake.

“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 in China. † † because of zero Covid people think there is no need to get vaccinated.”

Xi’s latest intervention followed a series of adjustments to its zero-covid policy. That included an expansion of the range of approved test kits, shaving time from isolation periods for those who have recovered and a higher bar for hospitalizations. However, all mild and asymptomatic cases will still be held in quarantine facilities.

Most analysts believe there is little chance that the state’s heavy-handed pandemic controls will disappear completely in the next 12 months. This year is pivotal for Xi as he breaks the precedent for a third five-year term in power. In a year of social and political obedience, personal freedoms will be sacrificed for stability.

Ting Lu, Nomura’s chief economist in China, said the latest changes in Beijing are neither an end to Covid-free nor a roadmap to a new strategy for living with Covid. “We stand by our view that the likelihood of Beijing being [zero-Covid] grip before March 2023 is very small,” he added.

Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding and Nian Liu


This post Beijing digs in to prevent a repeat of Hong Kong’s Covid mistakes was original published at “https://www.ft.com/content/91e91ac6-6264-468b-8c7f-bd7c53a37ecf”

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