BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) – China’s staunch defence of its Covid-zero policy has meant the country won’t join the global pivot toward living with the virus anytime soon. But authorities won’t cling to their unwavering adherence to that approach forever either.
The rigid strategy, which has pummelled the world’s second-biggest economy, disrupted supply chains and brought the lives of millions in many mainland cities to a miserable standstill, has been undergoing minor adjustments as the virus mutates.
Its eventual dismantling, however, will be gradual, involving step-by-step easing rather than a sudden end to all curbs in one fell swoop, experts say.
Though the government is ramping up the rhetoric on how it won’t back down from aggressive and sweeping curbs – ranging from mass testing and lockdowns to contact tracing and border restrictions in the near term – officials have also started talking about what it would take to claim “triumph” over Covid-19.
These are the signposts to watch for, which may indicate China is exiting its Covid- zero policy:
Shift in rhetoric
A change in how Covid-19 is described in official media, government communication and domestic public health debates would precede any major shift in Coronavirus-related policies, according to several experts.
That would require a marked departure from the current emphasis on how the pathogen is a bigger danger than the one that causes the seasonal flu, with top advisers and state media frequently labelling the idea of living with the virus as “wrongful”.
That contrasts with former Covid-zero adherents like Singapore and Australia, where governments now emphasise that the virus is not a threat if one is vaccinated.
“We would want to see when the government can communicate to the public about the risk of the virus in a balanced, objective and fair fashion,” said Dr Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
When government rhetoric shifts to highlighting Omicron’s milder nature compared to the original strain and its significantly lower fatality rate, along with an open discussion on how to live with it, “that would be a very key signal” that would show “authorities are looking for a down-ramp”, Dr Huang said.
Under China’s existing infectious disease law, Covid-19 is grouped with Aids, viral hepatitis, bird flu, rabies and several others as a Class B communicable disease. But the legislation also calls for stringent containment measures reserved for the riskiest and most severe infectious diseases such as the plague and cholera.
“That entails the highest grade of control, obliging administrative and legal departments to wield tremendous power to eliminate the virus,” said Dr Chen Zhengming, an epidemiology professor at the University of Oxford. “The way to deal with Covid needs to be adjusted, but it will be hard to do so without downgrading Covid in the country’s infectious disease control law,” he said.
Some Asian countries, which like China justified aggressive containment with legislation, have already changed tack. For instance, early during the pandemic, South Korea placed the disease on par with Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or Mers, as a top risk disease. Later, it moved it to a lower category that also includes tuberculosis and cholera, enabling the removal of almost all social distancing curbs by mid-April.
Despite its greater transmissibility, Omicron’s milder nature raises hope that the virus is evolving into a relatively more benign pathogen. An even milder variant could help China eventually reopen, Dr Chen said, adding it could happen some time later this year or early 2023.
Yet determining whether a new variant will indeed cause less harm in China could be tricky, because milder symptoms observed around the world could “stem in part from the pre-existing immunity from both vaccination and widespread infections,” he said. “But in China, natural infection is still very low.”