China hits back at WHO for saying its zero-Covid-19 policy is unsustainable

A medical worker taking a swab sample from a resident at his home in Xiayi, Henan province, on May 10, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
A delivery worker passing items to a man inside a fenced residential area under a Covid-19 lockdown, in Beijing on May 11, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - China on Wednesday (May 11) lambasted the World Health Organisation (WHO) chief’s rare criticism of its zero-Covid-19 policy as “irresponsible”, while quickly scrubbing its social media of any mention of the UN agency’s latest assessment.

Staunchly defending its draconian strategy as scientific and effective, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the country’s Covid-19 protocols have “stood the test of history”.

“We hope the relevant individual can view Chinese Covid-19 policy objectively and rationally and know the facts, instead of making irresponsible remarks,” he said at a regular news briefing.

The Chinese leadership has doubled down on its zero-Covid-19 strategy even as it comes under growing criticism from experts and its own citizens for stubbornly sticking to its old playbook of lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines to curb a highly transmissible variant of the virus.

Last week, President Xi Jinping warned against attempts to distort or challenge the policy, which has seen millions of Shanghai residents in lockdown for six weeks running now, leading to an outpouring of public unhappiness. 

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday that the United Nations agency had told Chinese experts that their Covid-19 approach was not sustainable and “a shift would be very important”.

“We don’t think that it is sustainable, considering the behaviour of the virus and what we now anticipate in the future,” he said.

The health body’s emergencies director also called for “dynamic, adjustable and agile policies”, saying that countries’ inadequate adaptation in the early days of the pandemic had resulted “in a lot of harm”. 

“We need to balance the control measures against the impact they have on society, the impact they have on the economy, and that’s not always an easy calibration,” said Dr Michael Ryan.

Covid-19 measures should show “due respect to individual and human rights”, he said.

China’s stringent protocols have helped keep its infection and death rates low over the past two years. Compared to the nearly one million deaths in the United States, it has recorded about 15,000 deaths, according to WHO.

New research based on modelling done by scientists in China and the US has warned that as many as 1.6 million people could die in China if it forgoes its zero-Covid-19 measures without improving its vaccination rate and access to treatments.

Scientists from Shanghai’s Fudan University, Indiana University in the US, and US health research agency National Institutes of Health concluded that the level of immunity from a March vaccination campaign would be insufficient to prevent an Omicron wave that would overwhelm current intensive care capacity by nearly 16 times.

Their findings were published in peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine on Tuesday.

China said it is most concerned about its unvaccinated elderly population - only about half of those over the age of 80 have been fully inoculated.

On Wednesday, censors were quick to scrub videos circulating on social media and even a UN post on social media platform Weibo of the WHO chief’s comments on China’s zero-Covid-19 policy.

A worker disinfects the queue area of a Covid-19 swab test collection site in Beijing on May 11, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Another popular social media platform WeChat also stopped users from sharing a similar post on the UN official account, stating: “This article has violated relevant laws and regulations, and is prohibited from being shared.”

Comments by netizens that were on Weibo on Wednesday morning supporting Dr Tedros’ view were also taken down by midday, although some critical posts could still be found.

“Leaving aside the question of whether zero-Covid-19 is right, blocking this WHO news is too crazy. This is why it is no longer a scientific issue,” said one netizen.

“If shielding scientific discussion leads to the adoption of an unscientific policy to the detriment of the people, who will be responsible for this, and who will benefit from this?”

Another netizen also questioned the “excessive” Covid-19 protocols. "Just because we support dynamic zero-Covid-19 does not mean that excessive measures are tolerated. For example, if a city reports zero infections every day, why are there still close contacts?

“The pandemic has been under control for some time, why have buses and taxi services not resumed, cross-district travel not allowed? Why are those returning from low-risk areas still required to be quarantined for 14 days? We support scientific Covid-19 management, but please quickly correct unscientific policies.”

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