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Explained: What is a ‘zero-Covid’ strategy?

Zero-Covid strategy aims to drive down the number of Covid-19 cases by imposing strict lockdowns, closing borders and imposing travel bans.

Medical workers inoculate students with the vaccine against the coronavirus at a university in Qingdao, Shandong province, China. (Photo: Reuters/File)

A notice, attributed to a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official, created a flutter among Beijing’s residents as it claimed that China’s straining and unpopular zero-Covid curbs — mass testing, targeted lockdowns, and travel restrictions — might extend for another five years.

According to The Guardian, the original text of the notice, attributed to Communist Party’s Beijing secretary, said: “In the next five years, Beijing will unremittingly grasp the normalisation of epidemic prevention and control.”

The notice was first put out by Beijing Daily and later by several state media outlets. After some time, the “five year” reference was taken off by most publications. But by then, it had triggered a wave of anger and confusion online among residents of Beijing, with a hashtag linked to the five-year notice getting 1 million hits before being removed.

What is the ‘zero-Covid’ strategy?

It is a strategy that aims to drive down the number of Covid-19 cases by imposing strict lockdowns, closing borders and imposing travel bans.

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Initially, when the pandemic started, Western countries adopted a mitigation approach that involved trying to flatten the curve while strengthening healthcare capacity to deal with possible flare ups.

But soon another strategy — the elimination approach — started to find acceptance. This strategy eventually evolved into a Covid-elimination or zero-Covid plan. As part of the plan, governments tried to stamp out outbreaks down to the last case, at any cost.

Australia, New Zealand, China, Hong Kong and several other Asia Pacific countries applied the approach, involving highly restrictive measures, for different lengths of time, with varying degrees of severity in their Covid curbs.

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Why did countries move away from zero-Covid?

By the middle of 2021, healthcare authorities started questioning the zero-Covid approach to fight the disease.

When vaccines started being rolled out worldwide, some countries also simultaneously started a gradual shift towards fewer lockdowns and more freedoms for citizens.

As the UK lifted restrictions putting its faith in the vaccination drive, France started issuing health passes to the vaccinated to enter public spaces. Around the same time, Australia, after battling the record Delta wave surge, too started talking about “living with the virus” with focus shifting from number of cases to total hospitalisations.

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However, New Zealand and China were among the countries that stuck to the elimination response. New Zealand ultimately transitioned away from a hard elimination approach in October 2021, but China has refused to pivot.

Why has China’s approach been criticised?

While the virus has evolved, China’s response to tackling it has been rooted in zero-tolerance for Covid cases. While this has helped the country stamp out every flare-up, a hard-to-lock-out Omicron variant has made the outbreaks frequent.

Beijing’s harsh countermeasures to tackle Covid have imposed immense hardships on the lifestyle and livelihoods of citizens, making the curbs unpopular.

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But the country has refused to budge on most elements of its policy, despite the WHO saying that its Covid response was “unsustainable”. It continues to be the last big economic power still wedded to the zero-Covid policy.

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Only recently, Shanghai faced a months-long lockdown amid the Omicron spread, while Beijing closed schools and offices for weeks over a separate surge. On Sunday, Shanghai recorded zero Covid cases for the first time since March.

First published on: 27-06-2022 at 08:47:58 pm
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