China's zero-Covid policy under review as economic pressure mounts

China's zero-Covid policy under review as economic pressure mounts

Women wearing face masks following the coronavirus outbreak walk near the Olympic Tower and the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, in Beijing on Wednesday. (Reuters photo)
Women wearing face masks following the coronavirus outbreak walk near the Olympic Tower and the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, in Beijing on Wednesday. (Reuters photo)

HONG KONG: Multiple teams in China are studying how to improve the country's anti-pandemic policies, as economic pressure from its zero-Covid approach intensifies, according to one of the nation's most prominent epidemiologists.

Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said researchers were "certainly able" to roll out new strategies in the near term, while noting they were "actively thinking and planning".

Improved control measures would differ from the current "dynamic clearing" policy, but China is unlikely to simply lift all restrictions as some Western countries have done, he said at a forum on Tuesday held by the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University.

Any changes to China's pandemic policies would put "people first and life first", while also allowing China to better interact with the international community and safeguard its own economic development, he said.

His comments came as debates continue over when and if Beijing will relax its coronavirus restrictions, as nations such as the United Kingdom, Denmark, Singapore and Vietnam have done.

Economists have warned that the divergence in coronavirus-control strategies with Western countries could put China at a comparative disadvantage, both socially and economically, while recent domestic outbreaks have heightened concerns about the rising cost of its zero-Covid approach.

"We have some private companies and self-employed people facing tremendous pressure," Wu warned, adding that their livelihoods are increasingly at risk the longer the current measures persist.

He also said that even though the extensive relaxation of coronavirus rules in Europe and the United States had put a lot of pressure on China, it is unlikely to completely follow suit.

"Initial estimations showed that many people would be infected, many people would die, and the result is unacceptable for ordinary people and officials," he said.

China on Saturday approved Pfizer's Covid-19 pill Paxlovid for emergency use - seen by some as a turning point in the nation's pandemic strategy.

Some analysts have suggested that the country's coronavirus restrictions were showing signs of easing, by moving away from a strict zero-tolerance approach and giving local authorities more flexibility in reducing travel disruptions caused by sporadic outbreaks.

Tao Chuan, chief macro analyst at Soochow Securities, is among those who have said China may adjust its Covid policies after March's "two sessions" - annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

He also said that the recent infection surge in Hong Kong offers insight into the adaptability of a "dynamic zero-Covid" policy.

"After the two sessions, the dynamic zero-Covid policy is likely to see a certain relaxation," he wrote in a note on Feb 9. "The adjustment would be gradual but is expected to help stabilise growth beyond infrastructure and real estate."

China's aviation regulator said in its latest five-year plan issued in early January that it was focused on restoring international air travel between 2023 and 2025.

"This is a very good sign," Wu said. "All departments are working hard in moving towards normalisation."

Still, he said he was "not very optimistic" about the pandemic ending this year. But he anticipated that the impact on society at large will be smaller than it was in the last two years.

He also predicted that a new mutant strain may emerge sometime between April and August and become the dominant strain across the world.

The US is also playing a big role in driving the global spread of Omicron, he said, adding that about one-third of China's imported coronavirus cases have come from the US.

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