A semblance of normal life has returned to many places after the pandemic, thanks to vaccines and other measures. People are living with the coronavirus while reducing severe illness, hospitalization and death. But China’s government under Xi Jinping has refused to budge from the approach of “zero covid,” using strict lockdowns in an attempt to stamp out every infection. The policy is obsolete and failing and should be ditched.
Zero covid has turned whole cities such as Xi’an, or sections of a metropolis like Shanghai, into ghost towns. Residents are ordered to stay indoors or are confined to special quarantine centers when just a handful of infections are detected. China has also deployed its own vaccines to fight the virus, although the elderly remain undervaccinated, and the shots are not as effective as the mRNA vaccines. China has boasted of a pandemic response that it claims is better than other nations’, but its reported 28,579 covid deaths are almost certainly an undercount.
In sticking with zero covid, China has compelled millions of people to isolate for weeks at a time, often running out of food and medicine. Last week, Wuhan reported about 20 to 25 new infections a day; city authorities ordered more than 800,000 people in one district to stay at home. After six cases were detected at the iPhone factory in Zhengzhou on Oct. 12, and 11 more the next day, the plant sealed itself off from the world in what is known as a “closed loop,” forcing its 200,000 workers to remain inside the plant and dormitories, while carting the infected off to quarantine. This prompted hundreds of fearful workers to flee on foot. Guangzhou, China’s fourth-largest city, is grappling with a major spike in infections. Shanghai’s Disney resort closed its doors for the second time this year.
China faces serious risks if it remains on this course. The Communist Party puts a high priority on maintaining social stability; constantly bottled up, people are growing restless, their patience tested by the endless lockdowns. The disruptions will drag down China’s battered economy. China’s elderly remain vulnerable to the omicron variant. More transmission and illness mean more chance of mutation and new variants that could pose a challenge for the entire globe.
Mr. Xi’s fixation with zero covid reflects an unfortunate penchant of dictators. Absolute rulers don’t like to admit they were wrong, especially after years of propaganda declaring they were absolutely right. But Mr. Xi, having secured his third term, should now shift tactics. Lockdowns were needed when no one knew anything about the virus and vaccines did not exist, but other tools are now available. China could purchase doses of mRNA vaccines and get those shots into arms. It was a good sign Friday that China agreed with Germany to allow expats on the mainland to receive the mRNA vaccine made by BioNTech, the partner of Pfizer. The deal should be broadened to include Chinese citizens. Instead of corralling people into quarantine centers, China should allow citizens to decide when to isolate at home when sick. Nobody has been perfect in fighting the pandemic — least of all the United States — but there is a path back to normal for China, if it chooses to take it.