China faces its biggest COVID challenge since the dark days of Wuhan

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The National Health Commission said that 5,154 cases of COVID were recorded on Monday across dozens of provinces and municipalities.

The vast majority of cases are in Jilin province, in China‘s northeast. The entire province, of 24 million people, has been locked down and shut off from the rest of the country. People who want to leave must ask the police for permission.

But cities around the country have been put into effective lockdown, including the tech hub Shenzhen in the south, home to 17.5 million people. Every residential community there has been locked down, with residents allowed to leave only for PCR testing. Businesses have been ordered to close or work from home.

Those orders have led to the suspension of a plant run by Foxconn, which produces iPhones for Apple – raising concerns over the impact on supply chains around the world.

Other cities including Shanghai and Xi’an have also been subject to restrictions, with residential communities being sealed off.

China has successfully managed the virus since it first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, officially recording just 4,636 deaths in a population of 1.4 billion people.

It has employed what it calls a “dynamic COVID-zero policy”, where outbreaks are quickly suppressed through mass testing and targeted lockdowns.

President of China Xi Jinping waves during the closing ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Will Omicron break through China’s defences?

China has built and maintained a fortress against COVID, even as the rest of the world puts down its defences.

But these rising cases are its biggest challenge since the dark days of Wuhan. The case numbers may be relatively tiny – less than a tenth of the UK’s current total, with a vastly bigger population – but the trajectory and the geographic spread is worrying.

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The question is whether China’s own fortress will finally be breached and whether its policy has run its course.

I suspect not, at least for now. Lockdowns do work, even for a variant as contagious as Omicron, and China does them more strictly than anyone else. They will not stop using that hammer until cases start to recede.

Beyond this outbreak, though, the future is more uncertain. Dr Zhang Wenhong, an influential epidemiologist, has pointed out that for fully vaccinated people, the risk of severe disease and death from COVID is less than flu – potentially pointing towards a less heavy-handed approach from China.

But the experience of Hong Kong may caution against that. After two years of success in managing the virus, the city is now experiencing the worst death rate on record globally for the pandemic. Hospitals have quickly reached capacity and mortuaries are out of space.

The death rate in Hong Kong is because of the low rate of vaccination amongst the elderly. Omicron may be less severe than other variants, but it is still lethal for unvaccinated older people.

And China is in a similar spot. Half of over-80s – some 15 million people – are not fully vaccinated. And its health care system is similarly unequipped to deal with a large influx of patients. It is a tinderbox waiting to be lit.

That’s why China will do everything to crush this current outbreak.

It should use that time afterwards to prepare its society for the outbreaks that will surely follow, or it will be stuck in an endless state of lockdowns and closed borders.

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