Mainland-style “Zero-COVID” Remedy Leaves Hong Kong Exposed

Another city-wide shutdown has apparently tamed a small outbreak of COVID-19 in the southern border city of Baise, Guangxi, where an Omicron cluster had been reported. The methods used to achieve the Chinese government’s goal of “zero-COVID” are by now familiar: mass testing, health codes, transport shutdowns, “warm-hearted aliens” (that is, medical workers in full PPE), quarantine and lockdown. Border cities such as Guangxi’s Baise, and Yunnan’s Ruili and Xinjiang’s Yili before it, have made the greatest sacrifices in upholding China’s zero-tolerance COVID policy. John Liu, Dong Lyu, and Winnie Zhu of Bloomberg News reported on the lockdown in Baise, a city of 3.6 million people:

It’s the third city China has isolated in the past two months as delta and omicron outbreaks show how difficult it is to contain the highly-transmissible new variants. The country sealed off Xi’an, a northwestern city of 13 million people, in late December and Anyang, with 5 million inhabitants, in mid-January. While Baise is smaller and of far less economic importance, the rationale for the sweeping curbs is similar: the virus has likely been circulating under the radar for quite some time, reaching a point where only full-blown movement restrictions will thwart its spread, the aim of China’s long-time virus strategy.

[…] The Baise outbreak emerged during the Lunar New Year holiday last week when a person tested positive on Friday, more than a week after returning from China’s tech hub of Shenzhen in late January. It’s not yet known how the outbreak started, but family gatherings and visits to friends during the week-long holiday could have amplified its spread. Infections spiked to nearly 100 after testing fewer than one-tenth of the local population.

[…] Officials in Baise have started a second round of testing, while health experts warned in local media that the virus could have already spread widely in the community. The city is also a major source of migrant workers for China’s manufacturing regions, and some had started traveling back before the lockdown went in effect. In nearby Guangdong, the provincial capital of economic powerhouse Guangzhou province, a migrant worker tested positive on Sunday after returning from Baise. [Source]

The city turned all traffic lights red to enforce the travel ban, a measure previously adopted by a small county in Jiangxi that later repealed the policy amid a social media outcry. Baise residents with similar complaints were silenced on social media. A Weibo trending topic about the city accepting donations to mitigate goods shortages was downgraded, reportedly leaving residents “sobbing in the toilet.” Authorities justify the harsh measures by citing border cities’ record as vectors of infection due to the large amount of goods and people that cross back and forth, legally and illegally. Guangdong authorities recently announced the capture of 15 smugglers, two of whom are under investigation for “impairing the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases” for testing positive for COVID-19 after illegally crossing over from Hong Kong.

Baise is not the only Chinese city experiencing an outbreak of the virus. Suzhou, just 70 miles west of Shanghai, has reported new cases for two consecutive days according to reporting from Reuters’ Roxanne Liu, Ryan Woo and Ella Cao:

The city in the eastern province of Jiangsu reported 18 domestically transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms for Tuesday, up from eight a day earlier, the data from the National Health Commission (NHC) showed.

The case number is small compared with many outbreaks overseas, but Suzhou government, in line with the national policy to contain outbreaks as quickly as possible, has quarantined thousands of people, closed various entertainment businesses and urged residents to reduce trips to outside the city.

The city authority announced it was closing 18 more highway entrances from Wednesday, after closing 15 a day earlier, state television reported. Anyone leaving by train would have to show proof of a negative test result within 48 hours. [Source]

China’s “zero-COVID” measures have been extremely successful at preventing mass deaths. The China Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) has warned that repealing the policy could lead to two million deaths within a year in “zero-COVID” regions, a conclusion that some experts found alarmist. “This is basically an in-house document: it is very focused on the China scenario, and they might want to support what the government is supporting, which is a zero-COVID policy,” Jaya Dantas, professor of international health at the Curtin School of Population Health in Perth, Australia, told Reuters. Nonetheless, the success of China’s epidemic prevention efforts and the relative weakness of the Chinese vaccines have left the country with a “huge immunity gap.” In an interview with state media outlet Global Times, CCDC chief epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said that vaccines cannot be used to contain the pandemic and that Omicron should not be treated like a “big flu, thus necessitating the temporary continuation of zero-Covid policies:

“We previously thought COVID-19 could be basically contained through vaccines, but now it seems that there’s no simple method to control it except with comprehensive measures, although vaccines are the most important weapon in curbing the epidemic, including Omicron,” the chief epidemiologist said.

[…] However, Wu said that Omicron cannot be a “flu” because it infects a different part of the respiratory tract than the flu (flu infects the upper respiratory tract, while COVID-19 infects the lower respiratory tract). Upper respiratory tract infections rarely cause pneumonia, unless the illness is prolonged.

Outside China, Omicron has a much higher rate in severity and fatality than that of influenza, so it cannot be a “big flu,” the expert said. [Source]

There is speculation that China’s approval of Pfizer’s Paxlovid pill for the treatment of COVID-19 will eventually lead China to relax its “zero-COVID” policy. Bloomberg News reported on comments by Zeng Guang, a former chief scientist at the CCDC, about what the pill signifies for China’s future pandemic policy:

Pfizer’s pill will serve a strategic purpose, said Zeng Guang, a former chief scientist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention who advised Beijing on Covid control, told investors in a briefing organized by Sealand Securities Co. on Saturday, hours after the approval was announced. The move may lay the groundwork for China’s Covid containment regime to gradually give way to a more flexible approach, he suggested, according to a transcript seen by Bloomberg News and confirmed by Sealand.

“China won’t self-isolate from the rest of world and has various measures at its disposal to change tack,” Zeng said during the event. “Strategizing precedes action.”

[…] “A foreign pill for Covid is much less radioactive than approving a foreign vaccine, because vaccines were at the heart of the soft-power race and such a point of national pride,” said Michael Shoebridge, director of the defense, strategy and national security program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank in Canberra. [Source]

The same zero-tolerance measures that have worked for China are not working in Hong Kong, where the government does not have the capacity, the authority, or the trust to tamp down an Omicron surge that threatens to kill thousands. Although a directive from Xi Jinping splashed across the headlines of Hong Kong’s two leading pro-China papers ordered that pandemic prevention be priority number one, hospitals are overflowing and the virus continues to spread. At The New York Times, Vivian Wang and Austin Ramzy reported on Hong Kong’s dilemma—Beijing has mandated that it implement “dynamic zero,” but the territory lacks the capacity to do mainland-style lockdowns:

“‘Dynamic zero’ — I admit this is a policy requirement of the mainland,” [Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam] told reporters last month. “But I am not the initiator, so if you want an authoritative definition of ‘dynamic,’ I’m sorry, I really can’t explain it.”

[…] “The loopholes and oscillation in Hong Kong’s antivirus strategy show that some officials have not met the requirements for ‘firm patriotism,’ said Tian Feilong, a law professor at Beijing’s Beihang University who studies Hong Kong.

[…] But even pro-Beijing figures acknowledge that Hong Kong cannot copy the mainland model outright. When the authorities this month locked down Baise, a city of about 3.6 million in southwestern China, after a flare-up of several dozen cases, they deployed 38,000 Communist Party members and workers to patrol neighborhoods and coordinate supplies, according to the local government. Such networks are a longstanding part of the mainland’s social controls. Hong Kong has more than twice as many residents and no such network. [Source]

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