Coronavirus cases in China have just touched a new daily record, having crossed 30,000 new infections in a 24-hour period for the first time. China’s National Health Commission reported 31,444 confirmed new infections on Thursday morning, higher than the previous record achieved in mid-April, according to a report by the South China Morning Post.
The US and France are reporting higher daily numbers right now; until a few days ago, Germany too was reporting more than 30,000 cases a day. But China is different — mainly because of the extremely restrictive containment strategy it has adopted, with a fair degree of success. When China last reported such high numbers in March-April this year, it was the first time the country had even seen 1,000 cases in a day.
The current wave of infections has come within days of China allowing some relaxations in its zero-Covid policy. The quarantine time, including for incoming international travellers, was reduced to five days, and only close contacts — not all — of an infected person were put in quarantine.
Following the surge, Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, went into a five-day lockdown on Friday. The city has seen large-scale protests from workers at the giant Apple factory in the last few days, with the Covid regulations being cited as one of the triggers.
While most countries have concentrated on not allowing infections to go out of control while allowing normal activities to continue, China has pursued a zero-Covid strategy from the beginning. Every known case, even asymptomatic, was mandatorily hospitalized, small outbreaks triggered hard lockdowns, and suspected cases, and all contacts, were kept under long isolation. The financial capital of Shanghai, home to more than 25 million people, was entirely locked down in March.
Though painful, the strategy was largely successful. According to Our World in Data, only 1.38 million people in China have been found to be infected till date, from the start of the pandemic in 2020. During its worst phases, the US reported similar numbers in a single day.
But this very success is now turning out to be a weakness. The vast majority of China’s population has not been infected by the virus, and hence has no immunity. Vaccines are not known to prevent infection in very significant ways.
Thus, when a fast-spreading variant like Omicron does manage to break through the strong defences of the zero-Covid strategy, as it sometimes will, it encounters a vast pool of susceptible people. The virus is able to spread very rapidly after that. This is what happened in March-April — and this is what seems to be happening now.
A similar scenario played out in Hong Kong and South Korea in February. Those countries too had kept their populations protected from the virus until then, with Hong Kong adopting a zero-Covid policy and South Korea testing very aggressively to identify cases at an early stage. But when Omicron finally broke through, both countries saw thousands of cases and hundreds of deaths every day.
China faces a similar danger for the second time this year. Omicron causes milder disease compared to Delta or Beta, but it can still lead to deaths among the elderly population. China has administered almost 3.5 billion vaccine doses, but the penetration among the 80-plus population has been low. In addition, there have been question marks over the effectiveness of the two Chinese vaccines in use, Sinovac and Sinopharm.
China had managed to bring the situation under control in about a month and a half earlier this year. There is nothing to suggest that the current surge would be very different. The latest wave has exposed the weaknesses of the zero-Covid strategy again, and yet, it might result in a return to the tougher regime that the country had just begun to relax.