China’s zero-Covid policy is not sustainable, WHO director general says

The head of the World Health Organization has voiced concerns over China’s effort to eliminate the Covid virus, in a rare rebuke to Xi Jinping’s pledge to achieve “dynamic zero-Covid”.

The WHO’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told a media briefing on Tuesday that his organisation does not think China’s Covid policy is “sustainable considering the behaviour of the virus”.

“We have discussed about this issue with Chinese experts and we indicated that the approach will not be sustainable … I think a shift would be very important,” he said.

Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, added that the impact of a “zero Covid” policy on human rights needed to be taken into consideration alongside its economic effect.

“We need to balance the control measures against the impact on society, the impact they have on the economy, and that’s not always an easy calibration,” he said.

Ryan also noted that China has registered 15,000 deaths since the virus first emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019 – a relatively low number compared with 1 million in the US and more than 500,000 in India.

With that in mind, it is understandable, Ryan said, that one of the world’s most populous countries would want to take tough measures to curb coronavirus contagion. However, he said the continued outbreaks have also underscored the difficulty of stopping the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Scores of Chinese cities – from the financial hub Shanghai to the capital, Beijing – have been under some form of lockdowns since earlier this year. Shanghai is in its sixth week of lockdown, with the authorities’ heavy-handed enforcement of the policy causing anguish and anger.

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Despite the criticism, Xi last week reiterated that his government had no intention of changing course. The president urged officials to “unswervingly adhere to the general policy of dynamic zero-Covid” and warned against any criticism or doubting of the policy.

Experts say China is in a dilemma over how to handle Covid. On Tuesday, new modelling by scientists in China and the US showed that the country risks more than 1.5 million Covid deaths if it drops its current policy without any safeguards, such as ramping up vaccination and access to treatments.

The researchers said such a death toll could be much reduced if there was a focus on vaccination – only about 50% of over-80s in China are vaccinated – as well as providing antivirals while maintaining some restrictions.

Reuters contributed to this report

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