HONG KONG, CHINA — On Wednesday (7 December), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government rolled back its tough Covid rules after the restrictions sparked widespread unrest and hammered the world’s second-largest economy.
Some relaxed restrictions include self-isolation of Covid patients with mild or no symptoms at home rather than in state-managed facilities; lockdowns only applied to more precisely identified areas, instead of entire neighbourhoods or city-wide lockdown.
The lockdowns must also be lifted if no new cases are found for five consecutive days.
The CCP government have also scrapped the need for frequent mass testing, saying only “employees in high-risk positions” such as healthcare workers and delivery staff — as well as those in “high-risk” areas — will need to take regular tests.
Donald Low, Senior Lecturer and Professor of Practice in Public Policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology(HKUST), shared that Beijing faces at least three major risks as it drops the strict zero-Covid restrictions and tries to find a way out of the pandemic without an unacceptably high number of deaths.
China’s elderly population remains under-vaccinated
In his recent Facebook post, Prof Low shared his response to The Wall Street Journal correspondent about the risks faced by Chinese authorities as it relaxes its zero-Covid policy.
He said the first challenge is that China’s elderly population remains under-vaccinated, compared to the elderly populations of most developed countries at the start of this year.
In addition, the healthcare infrastructure in many parts of China is under-prepared and under-resourced to cope with a large surge in infections.
Prof Low noted that both are largely the consequences of the zero-Covid strategy that created the delusion that Covid can be eliminated, leading to scarce resources being allocated to Covid suppression, rather than mitigation (increasing the vaccination rate, ramping up hospital and ICU capacity).
Under zero-Covid strategy, the CCP government implemented mass testing, centralised quarantine facilities, and lockdowns in the hope of suppressing COVID cases to zero.
In an interview with Channel News Asia, Prof Low said, “given how those health care resources have been directed that way, I suspect there has been an underinvestment in the kind of things that they would need to do to deal with or to cope with a live in approach.”
“And specifically, I’m talking about whether they have sufficient hospital capacity, whether there are sufficient ICU beds, and, of course, whether they have vaccinated the vulnerable segments of the population sufficiently.”
Current figures from Chinese authorities show 86.4% of those aged above 60 to be fully vaccinated, but only 69% have had their booster shot.
By contrast, the vaccination and booster rates in Japan were both at more than 90%.
“Disingenuous” for China govt creating excessive COVID fear and denigrating other countries’ efforts
Prof Low also added that public scepticism, distrust and anger would be the second risk need to be faced by the CCP government, if the expected surge in cases results in overwhelmed hospitals and an unacceptably high number of deaths.
Having spent most of the last three years creating excessive fear about Covid and denigrating other countries’ efforts to live with the virus, the Chinese propaganda machinery has now swung to the other extreme of downplaying fears about the Omicron variant.
“This is disingenuous and could later provoke a backlash from the population if the Hong Kong scenario – rather than the Singapore scenario (where a well-prepared healthcare system was able to cope with the Omicron wave, leading to relatively few Covid deaths) – materialises, ” he said.
Prof Low shared worrying statistics, where over a three-month period in the first half of 2022, 1 in 1,000 Hongkongers were reported to have died of Covid.
“If this were to occur in mainland China, the consequences would be catastrophic.”
Given the second risk mentioned above, Prof Low said the third risk had to be taken by Chinese authorities, which is that local governments would hide or under-report Covid deaths.
He surmised that local government officers might try to avoid public anger if there are high Covid mortality rates, and to avoid punishment from a central government that has set them an impossible mission: to loosen Covid restrictions and to boost the economy without causing public health crisis.
As Prof Low pointed in his CNA interview, “But having said that, you know, the local authorities, which are the ones that have to implement these national guidelines, they still have to make local decisions that are specific to their contexts.”
“And I think the great risk is that having so many of them having not been told to prepare for this scenario, of having to mitigate and having to live with the virus, they may well be underprepared for this sudden relaxation or sudden loosening of measures.”