CPC top leadership stresses sticking to zero-COVID policy
Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, chaired a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee on COVID-19 prevention work on Thursday.
The meeting emphasized that China's current COVID-19 control strategy has been proven to be scientific and effective, and should be unwaveringly adhered to as the country reaches a key and tough stage in fighting COVID-19.
China is still fighting its toughest battle against COVID-19 in two years, with financial hub Shanghai still not yet having curbed viral infections within communities, although caseloads continue to drop, while Beijing the capital city has now adopted stringent measures to tackle the virus.
Anxious to avoid Shanghai's experience, Beijing has adopted stringent measures in the past week to reduce human interactions and cut off transmission, trading a quick economic bounce back with a short-lived economic shock, and normalizing nucleic acid tests, which experts said demonstrated the government's determination to balance economic development and COVID-19 control. Looking ahead, when this round of outbreaks ebbs away, epidemiologists suggested that the government rapidly stockpile COVID-19 medicines and speed up vaccinating the elderly, an essential step on China's road to opening-up.
Capital's defense war
"Relaxation will undoubtedly lead to massive numbers of infections, critical cases and deaths, seriously impacting economic and social development and people's lives and health," the meeting said, the Xinhua News Agency reported on Thursday.
The meeting also stressed the importance of unswervingly adhering to the dynamic zero-COVID policy and resolutely fighting any attempts to distort, question or dismiss China's anti-COVID policy.
Beijing, which is currently battling the reemergence of the virus infections, beefed up antivirus measures on Wednesday, one day before most people in the capital returned to work on Thursday, including shortening, suspending or changing the routes of many public transportation lines including buses and subways. Authorities have also asked residents in Chaoyang, the capital's most populous district, which has been worst hit by the current outbreaks, to work from home starting Thursday. For those who have to go to the office, they are advised to drive themselves, said a local government official.
The government said on Thursday that large companies must limit their employees in the office to no more than 50 percent of staff.
Many employers in Chaoyang district have limited commuting options for their workers to riding bikes, walking or driving by themselves, in order to reduce interactions, leading to a surge in demand for shared bikes in the district. A worker in charge of arranging bikes at Shilipu subway station in Chaoyang told the Global Times that he found there were 600 more bikes than usual after peak hour on Thursday morning.
Yu Man, an employee in a financial institute in Chaoyang district, spent one and a half hours riding a bike to work on Thursday morning. "There are so many people riding bikes on the road, it's surreal. It is like throwing us back to the old days when the capital was congested with cyclists," said Yu. She joked that she was slightly comforted to see so many people like her, who cannot work from home fore various reasons.
People like Yu were dubbed by social media as "workers chosen by heaven" as they had dodged the bullet of being quarantined at home or in their compounds, and their office buildings had not been sealed off, and were lucky enough to work in the office. Epidemiologists believed this situation reflected Beijing's pursuit of "precise management," a strategy aimed at keeping to a minimum the impact of COVID-19 control measures on people's lives.
A manager at a technology park in the Beijing Economic-Technological Development Area, a high-end manufacturing hub in Beijing, told the Beijing Daily on Thursday that their workers are being checked not only for 48-hour valid nucleic acid tests before entering the park, but are also required to wear N95 masks in public places such as elevators, corridors or if they want to go to other parks.
Beijing has called on an "emergency fleet of taxis" to send non-COVID patients in controlled areas to hospitals. The city also pledged to issue passes for vehicles carrying important medical resources, daily necessities, and key materials for strategically important industries, media reported on Wednesday, noting vehicle owners with green health codes can apply 24 hours before they enter the capital.
The city has tallied more than 500 COVID-19 cases since April 22, and recorded two-digit case numbers for consecutive days, but epidemiologists believe the situation in the capital is "under control." Pang Xinghuo, deputy head of the Beijing municipal disease prevention and control center, said on Thursday that a few cases are still being found within communities.
An expert from Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Chinese CDC), who requested anonymity, told the Global Times that given the timely and stringent measures put in place, the caseload in Beijing will slow to a trickle in approximately two weeks, and social activities will resume after that. He noted that the policies will be tweaked in a timely manner based on how the situation evolves.
A model developed by Yao Maosheng, a professor at the College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at Peking University, who has closely followed the COVID-19 pandemic, showed that Beijing's caseload will go down in about five days, with total infections coming to 900.
Beijing has been tightening its COVID-19 control measures since the May Day holidays, including suspending dine-in services in all restaurants across the city, and restricting people's interactions in public venues, resulting in a quieter than usual holiday period. The city's key enterprises recorded sales of 4 billion yuan, a decrease of 12.3 percent compared with last year.
As a result, most venues went online to do business. Beijing Lotus Market, Jingkelong and Chaoshifa — several famous chain supermarket brands in Beijing — recorded increased sales volumes of 26.8, 20.4 and 19.7 percent respectively. Many shopping malls also went online. Hopson One, a famous shopping mall in Beijing's Chaoyang district, received 50 percent more orders than before the current outbreaks.
Some big restaurants were hit more severely. A hotpot restaurant owner in Chaoyang district told the Global Times that they only received 40 percent of orders compared to normal times on their online platforms during the holidays.
Economists believe the shock of Beijing's stringent measures on the economy will be short-lived, as unlike Shanghai, where the lockdown has dragged on for more than a month and impacted the national economy. Beijing has taken swift and effective measures to prevent the situation from further deteriorating, such as rolling out mass testing to get a clear picture of the transmission chain and putting strict restrictive measures in place to curb the viral spread.
One of Beijing's major expenses will be shouldering the costs of residents' nucleic acid tests, which is free for community testing, Tian Yun, former vice director of the Beijing Economic Operation Association, told the Global Times on Thursday, noting even this was a "piece of cake" for Beijing's finances.
In comparison, if it hadn't been for the outbreak in Shanghai, China's first quarter GPD increment could have surpassed 3 trillion yuan, Tian noted.
Cao Heping, an economist from Peking University, told the Global Times that with no specially effective drugs or vaccines in sight, some cities are prepared to normalize nucleic acid testing for access to public services, embodying the government's preparedness for handling COVID-19 controls and pushing for economic development.
He noted that actively responding to the COVID-19 outbreaks can bring opportunities for a new economy, including digital economy and other new economic growth areas coupled with COVID-19 control. The Peking university professor estimated that those areas can bring an increment of 0.2-0.3 percentage points for the nation's monthly economic growth.
The way forward
The anonymous Chinese CDC expert said that the paramount task now is to curb current infections, and to speed up preparations for opening up after this. "The whole process should be better than that of Hong Kong," he said.
Hong Kong reported one of the highest mortality rates worldwide due to the Omicron onslaught. A total of 90 percent of deaths involved people who were not fully vaccinated, and only about one-third of those aged over 80 in the city had been fully vaccinated.
The meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee also pointed out that as China is a populous nation with many elderly people and scarce medical resources, relaxing now will lead to vast numbers of infections and deaths, wreaking havoc on economic and social life.
Zhuang Shilihe, a Guangzhou-based medical expert. said that when this round of outbreaks ebbs away in the Chinese mainland and buys time for preparations, the government should step up the stockpiling of COVID-19 medicines and optimize the arrangement of medical resources, such as establishing specialist testing teams to allow normalization of nucleic acid testing, and most importantly, to push ahead with vaccinating the elderly.
In order to fix those loopholes, China is racing against time to vaccinate its elderly. According to statistics from the National Health Commission (NHC), less than 40 percent of those aged above 60 received booster shots in early March. Officials from NHC said at a conference on April 29 that the booster vaccination rate of this age group has reached 59 percent.
When asked on April 29 what would be an acceptable vaccination rate for those over 80 that China would be comfortable opening up under, Liang Wannian, head of the COVID-19 response expert panel under NHC, said that strengthening the vaccination of the elderly and effectively increasing the rate of the whole process of vaccination and booster shots is an effective means to protect their health, which must be strengthened.
Health experts agreed that the current vaccination rate among the elderly is relatively low compared with that of Japan, which has fully vaccinated 80 percent of those aged 65 or over; and Singapore, which has vaccinated 87 per cent of its senior citizens above 70.
The current predicament China faces highlights the urgency of vaccinating its senior citizens, as it takes months for the vaccines to form a strong barrier against the damage that comes with the virus, said the Chinese CDC expert, warning that the high vaccination rate among the elderly is an essential task on our way to reopening.