China’s major social media websites censored remarks by the head of the WHO on Wednesday after he said Beijing’s zero-tolerance approach to the coronavirus “will not be sustainable.”
At a May 10 press conference, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the UN agency, said the WHO had told Chinese experts that “transiting into another strategy would be very important.” Sufficient knowledge of the virus and the availability of “good tools” meant China’s zero-COVID policy was no longer necessary, he suggested.
Verified UN accounts on Weibo and WeChat, two of China’s most popular social networks, posted a Chinese translation of his remarks and a video of the media briefing, respectively. Just hours later, the Weibo post was removed and sharing of the WeChat article restricted, the embedded clip blocked because it had “violated relevant laws and regulation,” said a brief notice on the page.
WHO officials in Geneva said that the overriding objectives were now to reduce the number of severe cases and deaths from COVID, as well as to increase vaccine uptake across the globe. Stopping the transmission of all cases was “not possible,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease expert with the agency’s Health Emergencies Program.
Tedros, meanwhile, said current understandings of the virus and the high transmissibility of the Omicron strain—a trait likely to be present in other variants in the future—give Beijing an opportunity to move away from a zero-COVID strategy.
“We have discussed about this issue with Chinese experts, and we indicated that the approach will not be sustainable,” said the WHO chief. “Considering the behavior of the virus, I think a shift will be very important.”
Michael Ryan, an epidemiologist who is executive director of the Health Emergencies Program, hinted at the social impact China’s COVID regulations were having on certain sectors of the public. “All of those actions, as we’ve said since the beginning, should show due respect to individual and human rights.”
“We always have said as WHO that we need to balance the control measures against the impact they have on society; the impact they have on the economy. That’s not always an easy calibration to make,” said Ryan, who noted Tedros was holding detailed discussions with Chinese experts about a suitable “exit strategy” for the country.
Despite what appear to be widespread public grievances in Shanghai and Beijing—major cities fighting off Omicron outbreaks—the Chinese leadership has ordered health officials to stay the course on the country’s stringent zero-COVID strategy.
The policy is closely linked to the political legacy of China’s president, Xi Jinping, who chaired a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party’s top officials in the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee last Thursday. The gathering concluded with a vow to “resolutely fight against any words and acts that distort, doubt or deny” China’s approach to COVID, state media reported.
The censorship of seemingly unflattering remarks by the WHO appear to indicate that dissent on the now highly charged topic is not welcome, no matter the source. To combat critics, China’s ruling party has turned all-out containment of the virus into something to political campaign, complete with the Cultural Revolution-era phrase “persistence is victory.”
That’s not to say Beijing has no legitimate concerns. The CCP’s Politburo said last week that allowing COVID to spread through the population could lead to “economic consequences.” On Tuesday, researchers with Shanghai’s Fudan University published modeling in Nature Medicine that predicts up to 1.55 million deaths in China if the country were to change tack under the current vaccination rate.
Publicly available data shows the Chinese government has fully vaccinated nearly 90 percent of the population, but many of the country’s elderly remain unprotected. A nationwide outbreak, coupled with concerns over the lower efficacy of China’s locally made vaccines, could overwhelm the healthcare system, the paper argues.
Anxiety over inadequate immunization is particularly difficult to explain, given the lengthy window Beijing has had to approve popular mRNA shots like BioNTech, the German developer of the Pfizer vaccine used in the United States and elsewhere, including in the cities of Hong Kong and Macau.
In December 2020, BioNTech agreed a deal with Shanghai’s Fosun Pharma to supply mainland China will 100 million doses of the more effective mRNA vaccine. Nearly 18 months later, the shot is still awaiting regulatory approval. Fosun Pharma, which holds distribution rights for “Greater China” including Taiwan, said it was still in discussions with Chinese health authorities in March.
Health policy expert Yanzhong Huang told Newsweek on Friday that concerns emanating from the Politburo have remained largely unchanged from the beginning. The virus, however, has changed, but this hasn’t led to a new risk assessment in Beijing that might allow for an easing of restrictions, he said.
Since April, China has made efforts to “institutionalized and routinized zero-COVID measures,” said Huang, who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Seton Hall University. PCR testing sites were “mushrooming in Chinese cities,” he said, a sign that the policy was here to stay.
“They are convinced this will not have a lasting impact on China’s economic growth,” said Huang, who believes the Chinese leadership may be influenced by some “confirmation bias.”
In Shanghai, the better part of 25 million people are now in the middle of their sixth week of lockdown. From more than 20,000, the city’s daily infections have fallen into the hundreds, but residents are still reporting increasingly heavy-handed attempts to eradicate the virus by moving members of the public.
They have documented instances where contacts of positive cases were forced into centralized quarantine by hazmat suit-wearing workers who broke into apartments by cutting through the front door. Social media videos also appeared to show health inspectors climbing the outside of buildings to reach the windows of residents who refused to comply.
Throughout the city, where the subway has been shut, food insecurity and public dissent remains.
Residents in Beijing, which still hopes to avoid a repeat of Shanghai’s fate, are seeing signs of creeping restrictions this week. Gated communities where positive cases have been found have been sealed off with fences, while close contacts are transferred to field hospitals for isolation.