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With end of zero-COVID in China come chaos, challenges, recovery

BEIJING: Restaurateur Wang has seen brisk business in his eatery in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, since China lifted its zero-COVID policies in December.

It is a welcome change for the 60-year-old. His business has been battered after three years of strict measures, which included showing a negative COVID-19 test result to enter most places and being quarantined in centralised facilities after testing positive.

“With a brick-and-mortar shop, the impact’s been huge,” he said. “(When) you have a shop that no one’s visiting, you can’t sustain a business.”

But he contracted the disease soon after the relaxation of restrictions. He suffered body aches, fever and was coughing up phlegm.

“It’s definitely a lot more severe than a cold,” he said. “Some of my older friends … with underlying conditions or with weaker immunity have passed away.”

The lockdown protests prior to China’s policy change have morphed into angry comments on Chinese social media Weibo after the U-turn.

“There’s a sense among the Chinese public that they’re not as confident in the regime and how it handles COVID-19. They’re questioning a lot of the leadership’s choices, decisions,” said National University of Singapore (NUS) political scientist Chong Ja Ian.


The spike in cases and deaths can also be attributed to low vaccination rates and quality of vaccines.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), full vaccination using Chinese-made vaccines requires three doses. But only 58 per cent of the population had been fully vaccinated as at Dec 13.

The two most widely used vaccines in China are developed by Chinese pharmaceutical firms Sinovac Biotech and Sinopharm. Both use an inactivated virus to trigger an immune response and are considered less effective than messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines.

Another reason for the lack of urgency was the low number of infections prior to the policy U-turn. “Because COVID-19 wasn’t in the community, (older people) didn’t think it was going to be imminent,” Cowling said.

“They ended up getting COVID-19 in December or January before having a chance to get vaccinated. And that was a missed opportunity to save many lives.”


Last year also marked the first time in 60 years that the number of deaths in China exceeded the number of births.

With the demographic decline, coupled with the effects of the lockdown of large cities, Chinese leaders recognise the need to boost a maturing economy, said Chong.

China’s economy grew by 3 per cent last year – its second-lowest level in more than 40 years.

But the streets have become crowded since the reopening, a sign of economic recovery after years of zero-COVID-19 restrictions.

There is also concern that a new variant of the Sars-CoV-2 virus could emerge in China and proliferate via travellers from the country.

With the recent Kraken subvariant, for example, some estimates put the efficacy of mRNA vaccines at about 30 per cent.

But are travel restrictions the answer?

“If there was a new strain emerging in one part of the world, travel measures won’t stop that strain from getting to other parts of the world,” Cowling said. “I don’t think travel measures really have many rationales.”

Nevertheless, countries like the United States, South Korea, Canada, Britain and Australia are still enforcing rules for travellers from China, such as pre-arrival COVID-19 tests. All visitors to China, too, must produce a negative pre-departure test result.

Morocco, however, went so far as to ban all arrivals from China.

“For the rest of the world, it’s a matter of sort of striking their own balance,” Liow said.

“How to gradually open the door to Chinese tourists, Chinese business visitors … is going to be one of the definitive issues of this year.”

For Wang the restaurateur, the end of zero COVID-19 in China has marked a crucial juncture in time.

“This pandemic has made me realise that many things simply can’t be predicted,” he said. “The road ahead is long. It’s more important that we don’t look back. We should march forward.”

Watch this episode of Insight here. The programme airs on Thursdays at 9pm.

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