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China’s Vain Struggle for Covid Zero

China proves that no amount of government force will kill Covid.

In pursuit of the mythical Covid zero, China is now pushing vaccines on children as young as three years old.

Thus far, China has administered more than 2.2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines—almost three times more than India, the country that has doled out the second most Covid jabs. More than 70 percent of China’s 1.4 billion population is fully vaccinated. China’s two most widely used Covid-19 vaccines, the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines, were approved for use in children from ages three to 17 over the summer; however, China has been somewhat hesitant to vaccinate children under the age of 12—until now, as Covid cases have slightly increased.

China created the now ubiquitous formula of locking down, quarantining, testing, and restricting travel in order to control the spread of Covid-19, implementing it on a much larger scale and with much harsher penalties than Western governments. But don’t rule out the possibility that many politicians and health officials in the West wish they could exert that level of control—see Australia, for example. Almost since the beginning of America’s pandemic response, the corporate media has lauded China for purportedly stopping the spread of the virus through these extreme measures. One New York Times opinion—granted, by Thomas Friedman—was even headlined, “China Got Better. We Got Sicker. Thanks, Trump.”

Like Western governments, vaccinating large swaths of its population has also been a key element of China’s path back to normal. China’s current vaccine push aims to prevent the spread of Delta and other Covid-19 variants, particularly in regions such as Gansu and Inner Mongolia, which have recently experienced outbreaks. In Gansu, the Chinese government ordered the closure of all tourist sites, on which the province’s economy largely depends, to stamp out a Covid-19 outbreak Monday. Four of the 35 new Covid-19 cases detected in a 24 hour span prior to the closure were from Gansu. Another 19 were from the Inner Mongolia region, which led to stay at home orders for some of the region’s inhabitants.

To get to their current level of vaccinations, Chinese health care workers went door to door in some areas to inoculate people—and they weren’t exactly asking for permission to do so. The Chinese government has also deployed vaccination busses in residential areas and sent health workers into rural areas, where they could be seen giving farmers the jab as they toiled in the fields.

In July, the CCP began telling municipal and provincial governments to make their messaging more forceful. A month later, citizens in at least a dozen Chinese cities were warned that they could face punishment if they were responsible for causing a Covid-19 outbreak by not getting the vaccine. In the Hubei Province, officials said that those who refused vaccines could see a drop in their personal credit score, the ubiquitous surveillance system that punishes noncompliant Chinese citizens by restricting employment prospects, travel opportunities, healthcare access, and even internet speed.

Now, municipal and provincial governments in at least five Chinese provinces have announced the new vaccine requirements for children between the ages of three and 11. Hubei, Fujian, and Hainan each notified its citizens of the new vaccine requirements at a provincial level. So too have municipalities in the Zhejiang and Hunan provinces.

However, some parents in China, like those in the United States, remain reluctant to vaccinate their young children. Wang Lu, the mother of a three-year-old son who lives in the Fujian province, told the Associated Press, “I’m just not very clear on the vaccine’s safety profile, so I don’t really want to get him vaccinated, at the very least, I don’t want to be the first.”

In the end, how much authority Lu and parents like her will have over their children’s health decisions remains unclear. However, “the Delta variant has apparently reduced Chinese resistance to getting vaccinated” across the population, Michael D. Swaine, the director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told The American Conservative.

Despite its large-scale vaccination campaign, the cycle of harsh lockdowns and stringent mandates has continued, even at the slightest whiff of a potential outbreak. An outbreak in Guangzhou forced residential areas of the city into complete lockdown in June. Some 180,000 people were unable to leave their homes except to go to the hospital for medical testing. The government also tested nearly every member of its 18.7 million population in the span of just three days.

But the oscillation between start and stop in China, much like that of the United States, has exacted a heavy toll on the Chinese people. While China’s rise has been predicated on its economic resurgence, the rate of China’s economic growth has been slowing since 2010, and the country’s insistence on Covid zero jeopardizes a continuation of that trend.

Nick Marro, a macroeconomist with the Economist Intelligence Unit, told NPR that EIU decided to take 0.4 percent off of China’s economic growth forecast because of China’s continued Covid restrictions. “We are seeing quite a strict, quite a severe approach to ensuring that the outbreak remains controllable,” Marro added.

Protracted restrictions on business and education travel have also disrupted various joint ventures integral to China’s development. Nonetheless, “its economy has rebounded far better than most others, even with the lockdowns,” Quincy’s Swaine told TAC.

Even travel within the country’s border is heavily restricted—and comes at the cost of the traveler. Chinese residents who travel from a region with Covid cases, or come into contact with someone with Covid, must quarantine for two to three weeks in a hotel room they pay for themselves. Thus, many residents have not been able to visit family members in other parts of the country—even other municipalities—out of fear of lockdowns and quarantine.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Since Covid-19 appeared in Wuhan nearly two years ago—after most likely escaping from a Chinese lab where risky research was being conducted with U.S. funding—hardly any other states have exercised as much government force as China in stamping out Covid-19. Yet, Covid lingers on, infecting people who don’t show any symptoms, until someone does, and the cycle of shutdown, swabs, and shots continues.

No amount of governmental force will completely kill endemic Covid. Accepting that truth is the first step in ending the pandemic. We can’t wait for normal to arrive, we have to return to it ourselves while we still can.