World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has become the latest target of China’s censors, as authorities in Beijing attempt to manage discontent around the country’s draconian “zero COVID” policies.
At a media briefing on Tuesday, Dr. Tedros said the WHO believes China’s current approach “will not be sustainable” going forward and has recommended a shift in policy.
“The virus is evolving, changing its behaviours, becoming more transmissible,” he told reporters. “When we talk about a ‘zero COVID’ strategy, we don’t think it’s sustainable.”
Speaking after Dr. Tedros, WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said governments “need to balance the control measures against the impact they have on society, the impact they have on the economy.”
The WHO officials’ comments were initially shared on Chinese social media, including by verified accounts linked to the United Nations, but these posts were deleted. Posts under a hashtag on Weibo — “WHO says China’s zero policy is unsustainable” — were also disabled.
At a meeting chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, officials vowed to “unswervingly adhere to the general policy of ‘dynamic zero-COVID,’ and resolutely fight against any words and acts that distort, doubt or deny our country’s epidemic prevention policies.”
Controls in Beijing, Shanghai and a number of other cities across the countries experiencing minor outbreaks have been redoubled, as has online censorship of anyone questioning the current approach. This is despite the fact cases are down to less than 2,000 nationally, from a peak of around 53,000 in mid-April.
Renewed clampdowns have been met with growing anger and despair, particularly in Shanghai, where some residents have been confined to their homes for over six weeks — except for brief excursions for daily COVID tests. This week, many neighbourhoods which had been gradually opening up reversed course, banning food deliveries and forcing residents to rely on government provisions, which in the past have been late or severely limited.
Even those implementing the new restrictions do not seem to understand them. In one widely-shared video, a Shanghai police officer admits he has no answers for people questioning why they have to be sent to a quarantine camp.
“Stop asking me why, there is no why,” the cop says. “We have to adhere to national guidelines.”
Anti-epidemic workers, known as “big whites” for the colour of their head-to-toe hazmat gear, have faced increasing resistance as people become more frustrated with the lockdown and accounts spread online of abuse by the authorities.
On Tuesday, the Shanghai government said workers will no longer enter people’s homes without permission, after instances of “big whites” forcing their way into residences for forcible disinfection.
In an open letter published online Sunday, a group of 20 academics, led by Tong Zhiwei, a prominent Shanghai law professor and Communist Party member, urged the authorities to stop “excessive pandemic prevention.”
“Pandemic prevention needs to be balanced with ensuring people’s rights and freedoms,” the letter said.
“Local governments and officials need to act strictly according to the constitution and laws, and cannot destroy the rule of law for convenience.”
Like Dr. Tedros’ criticisms however, this missive was quickly censored, and Mr. Tong’s Weibo account was suspended.
Writing in the South China Morning Post, Shi Jingtao, a journalist and former Chinese diplomat, said that COVID censorship and media controls risked having the opposite effect to what officials intend.
“Without offering an actual fix or hopes for solutions, it could be dangerous to simply censor and suppress views that are critical of some of the inhumane lockdown measures amid the simmering outrage that has ripped across social media,” he said, adding the government needs to “find better ways to explain to the public its inflexibility over the zero-COVID strategy.”
Beijing’s fears over what could happen if pandemic measures are relaxed are legitimate, fuelled by concerns over a lack of vaccination coverage — and potentially less effective jabs than those used elsewhere — and the effects on the country’s health system if cases spike nationwide.
Over 3.05 billion vaccine doses have been administered in China, according to the country’s National Health Commission, with around 87 per cent of the population fully vaccinated. This is skewed towards younger people, however, with the NHC saying in March that only 20 per cent of over 80s, and 48 per cent of over 70s had received a booster shot.
While there have been significant efforts to improve coverage, recent NHC statistics suggest vaccination has in fact slowed significantly among the elderly, with the rate of those receiving a booster halving between late March and early May.
In a paper published by the journal Nature this week, a group of researchers at Shanghai’s Fudan University warned that current vaccine coverage “would be insufficient to prevent an Omicron wave that would result in exceeding critical care capacity with a projected intensive care unit peak demand of 15.6-times the existing capacity and causing approximately 1.55 million deaths.”
Zero COVID is proving increasingly costly, however, and not just socially. China’s economy is suffering as a result of lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere, as well as controls on travel nationwide as local authorities attempt to stop the spread of infections.
China’s jobless rate is at its highest since May 2020, and on Saturday, Premier Li Keqiang warned employment in the country faced a “complex and grave” situation. Few analysts expect China to hit its official growth target for this year of “around 5.5 per cent,” even with significant government intervention.
Veteran China watcher Bill Bishop said the country’s leaders are “stuck in a terrible dilemma.”
“There are still far too many unvaccinated people and letting outbreaks run would likely result in a collapse of the medical system and mass death,” he wrote in his newsletter Sinocism. “But persisting with this policy risks undermining everything they have achieved over the last two years.”
With reports from Alexandra Li and Reuters
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.