COVID relaxations right step to normalcy

The central government recently announced a nationwide relaxation of COVID-19 policies amid a waning pandemic. The new round of policy changes was greeted with gushing approval in the Chinese mainland where watertight anti-pandemic restrictions over the last two years have protected citizens from the high death tolls largely seen in Western communities. Technocrats of the National Health Commission spearheaded the efforts in reopening the country, and the State leaders gave a swift nod — the same nod that paid tribute to science.

Over the last 12 months, COVID-19 mutations slowed both qualitatively and quantitatively. Omicron is now the predominant variant across the world. Though a cluster of novel variants have emerged over the months, most of them have been deemed by top microbiologists to be subvariants of omicron. That means immunity gained throughout the population, by natural infection or vaccination, is more likely to remain effective. A similar case for easing pandemic restrictions could not have been made last year when studies suggested a 30 percent dip in immunity levels against omicron after completing two doses of Comirnaty vaccine, one of vaccines approved by the World Health Organization. Subvariants have also been observed to be less lethal. Those infected are likelier to recover after a few days of mostly self-limiting symptoms; and fewer are expected to succumb to the virus.

Vaccination rates are picking up, not least among the elderly. According to Our World in Data 2022, at least 90 percent of the mainland’s population has been fully immunized, higher by a stretch than the United States’ 70 percent. Pharmaceuticals have worked hard to produce vaccines that can offer protection against omicron. For all of omicron’s ability to evade immunity, China sees a chance to bring it to heel. A homegrown mRNA vaccine designed to work better against omicron and its subvariants is also in the pipeline. China’s top virologist and immunologist George Gao Fu has been leading his team tirelessly on this critical mission. Should he succeed, China will have taken another great stride in the crusade against COVID-19.

 Even in the West where anti-China sentiments have become a brainless vote-winner, some politicians in many nations demurred to their country’s freestyle COVID-19 policies compared to China’s. Hardliners incessantly criticized China’s dynamic zero-COVID policy as the West reopened. When the omicron variant first emerged last year during winter, a lower death rate than its ancestral strains was speculated upon, exerting pressure on many Western politicians to relax pandemic restrictions. Statistics to prove that omicron would claim fewer lives than the alpha or beta variants were vastly lacking.

 Policymakers were swayed by populism more than by science and facts, and most Western economies are now suffering a double whammy — with inflation fueled in part by excessive handouts during the pandemic, and a high death toll among the immunologically susceptible sections of their populations who were far from ready to embrace abrupt policy changes. By opening the floodgates unceremoniously, the West in effect has conducted a large-scale human experiment from which the world has had to learn painstaking lessons. Such a double fault was not a price China was willing to pay — Chinese policymakers decided to take active measures to safeguard its health system on which the health of its people depend.

 Against the backdrop of an enfeebled virus alongside more impervious protections against it, the central government is right to take the nation one step closer to normalcy. Three years into the pandemic, the death rates in China remain impressively low, even among well-developed countries. Though a slight bump in hospitalizations is expected to follow, this is unlikely to inflict a grave wound on the nation. China’s infection rates peaked at 35,000 in one day in early December, with the death rate barely budging over the following two weeks. There have been no news reports of hospitals scrambling for protective gear or medicine. Citizens have kept their cool and resumed working. Families have been able to buy food and necessities. The process has so far been orderly and painless.  

That the Western media and politicians squandered no time in piling in on China’s new COVID-19 policies is them turning on their heads. After spending so long pestering China to open up its economy, they have now come a step closer to what they were wishing for. Therein lies a dilemma — extol Chinese policies and be rebuked by their readers (and voters), or plunge headlong into stories about Chinese investors going under or decamping to Singapore. They will choose the latter.

China must reopen one day. And the central government is fully aware that 1.4 billion lives are at stake. Yet miscalculation could wreck the lives of many households as much as their livelihoods. “Controlled exposure” allows room for maneuver as China pivots. It is because of, not despite, such premeditated change in policy that space for economic development is created. The backbone formed by a healthy population and a sound health system bolster whatever industrial output and scientific creation we took for granted. Many construction projects, both public and private, are afoot. Resumption of factory output is apace. Imports and exports are forecast to rise next year. Global inflation, a product of selfish US fiscal policy, is expected to hit China less hard than countries with a high debt-to-GDP ratio.

With the virus withering, refined vaccines, and a fortified health system, China looks set to take the helm.

The author is a member of China Retold and a licensed medical doctor who holds a Master of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University. He is also a member of the New People’s Party.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.