Economists hail an end to zero Covid in China, but fear huge human toll

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Beijing’s abrupt dismantling of zero-Covid controls has been welcomed by economists, even as the country braces itself for the human impact of letting the disease spread through a vulnerable population.

The leadership’s abrupt U-turn on how it handles the pandemic appears to have been triggered by the anti-control protests that began last month, a show of nationwide discontent on a scale China hasn’t seen in decades.

But those unrest came after growing concern about the toll that the regular lockdowns and strict lockdowns were taking on the country’s economy.

China has been an engine for regional growth since the last century. However this year it is expected to fall behind its neighbors for the first time since 1990, with dire consequences for its population.

Nearly one in five young people in cities is unemployed. Small and medium-sized businesses have been particularly affected by the uncertainty and impact of unpredictable and often long-lasting closures of entire cities.

But hardly anyone was exempt. The founder of Foxconn, a key supplier to Apple, had warned Beijing that the controls threatened China’s place in the global supply chain, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The private letter was sent last month as disgruntled workers protested at the company’s plants, and has been a weapon for health officials and consultants who wanted to reopen the country to the world.

Other countries that had pursued zero-Covid policies early in the pandemic, from Australia to South Korea, have cautiously reopened as vaccines and antiviral treatments have become more widely available.

IMF Chief Executive Kristalina Georgieva welcomed “decisive” steps by Chinese authorities in “recalibrating Covid policies” and said they could revive the regional international economy.

“This can be very good for the Chinese people and the economy, and also for Asia and the world economy,” he said after a summit in the eastern Chinese city of Huangshan. Premier Li Keqiang, who hosted the discussions, has conspicuously abandoned masks and social distancing.

A child received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a school in Guizhou province last week. Photography: VCG/Getty Images

On social media, public information videos have shown smiling men and women taking off their masks that have been mandatory for years.

It was a reversal of years of messages that the only way to stay safe was to avoid Covid, through extreme lockdown measures if necessary. For years, an ever-tightening system of controls has kept ever more infectious strains of disease at bay. Medical experts say it was a wasted window of opportunity to protect the population and prepare the health system for a surge in sick patients.

Georgieva has also called for more vaccinations and a rapid expansion of medical treatment options, to prepare for the surge in infections that will inevitably follow the opening.

“This [end to zero-Covid] it can create better momentum to boost growth in China, particularly when combined with broader-based vaccinations, supply of antiviral treatments and increased health capacity.”

The big challenge facing leadership now is whether it can limit the number of cases and deaths. China is an aging country, with vaccination and booster rates far below those needed to limit serious disease.

Only 40% of people over 80, who are particularly vulnerable, received the booster. And nearly all will have the home-grown vaccine, which is less effective and less long-lasting than Western alternatives.

China has sought the technology to produce mRNA vaccines, but has refused to buy or import them. Adding to the risks from a rapidly spreading surge of cases, there is almost no natural immunity, because most people have never been exposed to Covid.

Between 1.3 and 2.1 million lives could be at risk, according to a study by health analytics firm Airfinity. He based the models on the impact of an outbreak earlier this year in Hong Kong, which also has an elderly population and low vaccination.

Allowing the disease to spread in early winter in the Northern Hemisphere, when other respiratory diseases are circulating and people are crammed indoors, increases the risks.

These factors could spell a bumpy road for China. If health services are overwhelmed, they may have to resort to the “roller coaster” of temporary lockdowns most Western countries went through until they ramped up vaccination rates.

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