In much of the world, it feels like the Covid-19 pandemic is over. In some countries, the figures support this hypothesis. In the United States, new cases in mid-March were just 25,000 a day compared to a peak of nearly 1.5 million in January. In Pakistan, there are about 500 new cases. However, this is not the case in other countries where cases remain high and are on the rise again despite very high vaccination coverage rates. In Italy where I live, the number of daily cases rose from 200,000 in January to 18,000 at the end of February but has now risen to 70,000 new cases per day while 90% of the population is fully vaccinated. The situation is similar in several other European countries.
Despite these high workloads in some countries, restrictions are being eased quickly. In Italy, the state of emergency, along with many associated measures, will end at the end of March. In the UK, the Prime Minister, in a speech to parliament as early as January, announced the lifting of all restrictions when there were 100,000 new cases every day. A similar approach is being taken in other European countries, with restrictions being eased quickly. Austria, which had announced compulsory vaccinations, has now suspended this legislation. In Pakistan, the National Command and Operations Center (NCOC) has announced the lifting of all Covid-19 restrictions imposed across the country.
The decision of many governments to remove restrictions appears to be largely driven by social and economic imperatives. There is a strong desire to return to normal, to restore lifestyles and to resume economic activity and growth. There also appears to be a shift in mainstream scientific opinion. The available evidence suggests that vaccinations have provided a strong bulwark against serious disease – in fact, statistics show that most hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated people.
Additionally, the currently dominant Omicron variant has relatively mild symptoms and only affects the upper respiratory tract and not the lungs and heart as previous variants, such as Delta, did. The current consensus is that the SAR-COV-2 virus is done with killing and will become endemic, creating minor seasonal issues much like the flu virus.
If the scientific consensus is correct – that Covid has done its best and is on its way out – why is China sticking to its “Zero Covid” policy? My first thought was that it had to do with the Winter Olympics. The government didn’t want the games to be marred by a Covid outbreak and so were overly cautious. But the Games are over and there are few signs of a change in policy. In fact, the recent measures were more drastic than ever.
In mid-March, China reported a record of more than 5,000 new cases per day – 5,000 cases in a population of 1.4 billion, compared to more than 100,000 new cases in France (67 million inhabitants) , more than 200,000 new cases in Germany (population 83 million) and 120,000 new cases in the United Kingdom (67 million inhabitants).
In response to this tiny number of cases compared to other countries, the entire province of Jilin in northeast China, which has a population of around 24 million, has been placed in quarantine: the inhabitants have been prohibited from driving and anyone wishing to leave the province must request authorization from the police.
Restrictions have been imposed in other cities. In Shenzhen, a tech hub of more than 10 million people, a five-day lockdown has been imposed with all bus and subway services suspended. Several other cities, some close to major centers such as Beijing or Guangzhou, have also imposed confinements. Businesses in these areas, unless they are considered essential, have been told to close or have their employees work from home.
So what’s up? Why is China locking down large swaths of the country for a tiny number of cases? There are three possible explanations I can think of:
The first explanation could be that the official figures of newly reported cases are not correct; and actual infection rates are much higher. If so, the government’s response reflects the real situation on the ground and not the fabricated figures reported to WHO or the international community.
A second explanation could be that Chinese scientists know something about the virus that others don’t. Let’s not forget that corona virus research has been going on in China for a long time; and it is certainly plausible that Chinese scientists are experiencing serious long-term effects. Should the rest of the world stop for a moment and ask: do they know something that we don’t? And if so, should we be in such a rush to get back to normal?
A third explanation is that China is stress testing the country’s social and economic life in preparation for war with the United States. Such a war is highly probable and will most likely be triggered by an invasion of Taiwan. The United States and Europe may well respond, as they do in the case of Russia, with sanctions. Covid-related restrictions could be a way to test how things work should key activities come to a halt.
It should be remembered that Jilin is home to several foreign factories such as Toyota and Volkswagen, and there is a large iPhone factory in Shenzhen. By shutting down these activities, China can test the impact on its own economy and also send a signal to trading partners about China’s importance to the global economy.
And perhaps by shutting down an entire province, the Chinese government is doing a large-scale test – one of the impact of a nuclear attack that requires the area affected by the radioactive fallout to be isolated from the rest of the country.
Maybe this is all fanciful – but I wouldn’t be too sure.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 24and2022.
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