Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: Zero-COVID rollback brings risks for China

China has begun rolling back key aspects of its highly controversial Zero COVID strategy. Along with loosened testing and quarantine requirements, the new rules also allow easier movement for Chinese citizens. However, the rollback of Zero COVID comes with significant risks for the country.

1. Zero COVID was introduced by the Chinese government at the start of the pandemic in 2020. Unlike other countries that tried to mitigate and live with the worst effects of the virus, China opted for a strategy of elimination. Cases were identified through a mass testing system before infected citizens were carted off to quarantine facilities. Entire cities were locked down to eliminate outbreaks and movement and travel were severely restricted.

2. While the strategy helped reduce China’s case load and fatalities, it came with significant downsides. Repeated lockdowns to restrain case count hurt businesses and caused a sharp slowdown in the domestic economy. The lockdowns were also harshly imposed even as citizens complained that they had little access to food, water and basic medical services. Outrage on social media was widespread.

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3. The spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant in early 2022 forced repeated shutdowns and disruptions to ordinary life. Despite being unsuited to dealing with the new variant, President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party remained committed to the policy.

4. Public discontent began to rise. Protests broke out in Tibet and in Zhenzhou, at a large Apple manufacturing facility. Citizens were frustrated by the lack of communication from the government about the policy as well as the hardships suffering under lockdown. The tipping point was a fire in a neighbourhood residential colony in Urumqi, a city in Xinjiang. The fire killed 10 people and citizens alleged that firefighting efforts as well as attempts to escape the blaze were hampered by Zero COVID restrictions.

5. Protests spread across the country in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Wuhan among others. While they were contained, the government moved quickly to begin a rollback of some of the harshest restrictions.

6. However, public health experts are warning of a major exit wave of cases. Some estimates say that the removal of zero-COVID restrictions will cause 279 million cases and a staggering 2.1 million deaths.

7. China's emergency healthcare system is widely considered to be unprepared to deal with an influx of this magnitude. A significant proportion of the country's senior citizens are unvaccinated. Those that are have been given Chinese-made vaccines, which have been proven to be less effective than their foreign counterparts.

8. An uptick in cases is already underway. Media reports indicate that Beijing is running out of fever medication already. China's public health system, never robust even in the best of times, is being pushed to the brink.

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