In China, the “zero-Covid” strategy has reached its limits – rts.ch

Beijing hoped to turn the page on Covid by barricading itself. The formula has so far made it possible for the country to break the transmission chains, but with Omicron and its BA.2 sub-variant, it has proved increasingly complicated to keep the lid on the pandemic pot.

Cut off from the rest of the world, the authorities have been using a radical method for more than two years based on three main principles that have been carefully applied: test, trace and isolate, to prevent the spread of the virus. However, the population seems to support them less and less.

“We want to live! We want to work! Stop your quarantines, we do not want them!”. Protesters echoed through the streets of Shenzhen’s central Futian district on Monday night. Trapped in mid-March, the 17 million residents of the urban area of ​​this large southern metropolis were released this week, with the exception of a few “risk areas” whose residents took on law enforcement and medical teams.

Imprisoned behind tall palisades erected to isolate their neighborhood, most residents have not worked for two weeks. On the other side of town, that evening, an agitated crowd ransacked a screening booth. Spontaneous, at times muscular, protest movements have taken place across the country in recent days.

Fear of a different approach

Do these incidents reflect widespread popular discontent? It is difficult to know the real feelings of the people towards the draconian measures imposed by the government’s zero-Covid strategy.

If Huang Yanzhong acknowledges that the Chinese’s patience has been severely tested for two years, this Chinese health policy specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York is still experiencing some adhesion from the public. “Many people agree that this policy helps to ensure a safe environment, a Covid-free environment. Exploded for not choosing the zero-Covid strategy. There is a feeling that if China changes its approach, the consequences would be devastating “.

The fear of Covid, conveyed intensely by power, has arisen. Since the beginning of the crisis, the Communist Party has emerged as a protector, ready to do anything to preserve the health of the population. The propaganda highlights Western leadership described as lax and failed. Xi Jinping himself did not hesitate to lift the fight against the pandemic to make it the symbol of the superiority of the Chinese socialist system under the rule of the Communist Party.

“Given the extreme politicization of the pandemic, maintaining the zero-Covid strategy and ensuring that it works is seen as essential by China in its ideological competition with the United States,” Huang Yanzhong analyzes.

>> Listen to La Matinale returns on Monday for the first Covid deaths in a year in China:

It is official, China registered its first Covid deaths this weekend since January 2021 / La Matinale / 1 min. / Monday at 06:28

“We must work, we must earn a living”

But at a time when the West and most countries in the Asia-Pacific region are gradually turning the page and dismantling their anti-Covid system, one after another, the stubbornness of the Chinese authorities is cracking public opinion.

“I was scared of the virus when it was Delta, but now the cases are the result of Omicron … And I’m not scared of this variant because one of my friends caught it and she recovered perfectly at 3 or 4 days, “says Sandet. This 28-year-old woman from Hefei, a city in eastern China, refuses to give her Chinese name for fear of being recognized.

She criticizes an inadequate policy against the Omicron variant: “If they continue to systematically limit everything to reduce the number of cases, it will be even worse for the economy. Everyone sees that the situation has gotten worse after two years with this policy. We need to work. We must earn a living! “

“Zero-Covid strategy has hit the domestic economy hard”

Faced with the resurgence of the Omicron variant in recent weeks, some financial institutions have already lowered their growth forecast for China this year. “They will quickly realize that the cost of this policy outweighs the benefits,” warns Huang Yanzhong. “While initially beneficial to the national economy by helping to preserve and strengthen the export industry, which has been the engine of Chinese growth since the start of the pandemic, the zero-Covid strategy hit the domestic economy hard,” said Wang Dan , chief. economist at Hang Seng Bank.

“Consumption figures are very poor, especially in cities. This time the containment measures have been so strict that they have paralyzed the local economy. The government must send a clear signal that it is ready to tolerate a number of infections. But unfortunately there were none. signals in that direction. “

Local officials fired as there are too many cases

Although Xi Jinping recently ordered minimizing the impact on people and the economy, in practice local authorities continue to face enormous pressure from the central government. Mayors, governors and politicians are regularly fired and punished when new cases are identified.

The number of daily infections has risen to almost 5,000 in the country in recent days. Despite these extremely low figures in international comparison, public authorities consider the situation to be critical. “We must stick to our dynamic zero-Covid strategy […] time to develop new drugs and new vaccines. We may even reach a stage where the virus becomes less transmissible and less virulent. This scenario would be best for us, “Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist and architect of China’s health strategy, said this week.

Fear of the Hong Kong scenario

Beijing fears the Hong Kong scenario. Victim of the Omicron wave, the former British colony has experienced the highest death rate in the world since the start of the pandemic. The slaughter primarily affects the unvaccinated elderly, a majority in the area.

However, if 87% of the Chinese population received two doses of one of the national serums, this percentage drops drastically among the elderly: 50% of the 70-year-olds are fully vaccinated and less than 20% of the 80-year-olds and over. What to fear cascading deaths in case of flexibility of health measures.

>> Review the 12:45 report on this topic:

Hong Kong faces a fifth wave of Covid-19 / 12:45 pm/1 min. / March 12, 2022

A communist party caught between political and economic stability

The Communist Party does not want to take the risk of seeing the number of bereaved families multiply, a source of discontent in this delicate period of power. The country is preparing to renew its political elites on the occasion of the 20th party congress, which will take place next autumn. This high mass, which is organized every five years, will also see Xi Jinping reappointed as General Secretary of the CCP for a third term, a situation unprecedented since Mao Zedong’s death.

For Wang Dan, therefore, the context is not conducive to a change in the country’s health policy: “I do not believe it is possible for the authorities. The Communist Party’s 20th Congress is such an important event that they will want to maintain social stability at all costs. “They do not want to see panic or anxiety among the public. But if Covid cases rise rapidly, it would cause this much feared panic.”

But at the same time, the economic situation worries. With the resumption of overseas production, demand for Chinese products has already begun to decline. “The machine is slowing down and the domestic economy is not able to compensate for these losses in the current situation. This will be a big problem in the second half of the year,” warns Huang Yanzhong. An issue that is also a source of potential instability: “They can not wait until the autumn to adjust their health policy”. The Communist Party is, as usual, on a hill. Like a hiker standing on a tight rope, he walks slowly forward, one step after another.

Michael Peuker / other

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