China, Isolated From the World, Is Now the Last Major Country Still Pursuing a ‘Zero COVID’ Strategy

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Photo: TIME

For much of the pandemic, a group of places in the Asia-Pacific brought infections to zero, becoming virus-free havens in a world ravaged by the pathogen. Now, with the rise of the delta variant and the proliferation of vaccines, only one is still holding fast to that goal of eliminating Covid-19: China.

With New Zealand preparing to shift away from the zero-tolerance strategy, China’s isolation is complete, raising the stakes on how long it can stick to a playbook that requires closed borders, abrupt lockdowns, and repeated disruption of social and economic activity.

One by one, Covid Zero places like Singapore and Australia have decided that the approach is unsustainable, pivoting instead to vaccination to protect people from serious illness and death while easing off on attempts to control the number of infections.

In contrast, China’s resolve to stamp out every infection appears to have only grown stronger, though 75% of its vast population is fully vaccinated. The country is now grappling with its fourth delta-driven flareup in two months and this week locked down a prefecture in the western Xinjiang province over two asymptomatic infections during a peak tourism period.

The Chinese territory of Hong Kong, which has so far avoided local transmission of delta, has also made clear that its status as a global financial hub is less important than links to the mainland and the joint goal of elimination.

The task is likely to get even harder as cold weather — the conditions in which the virus spreads best — descends. In three months, Beijing will host the Winter Olympics, welcoming thousands of athletes from around the world.

“Covid Zero in the medium- to long-term is unsustainable,” said Peter Collignon, an infectious disease physician and professor at the Australian National University Medical School. “Delta shows the almost impossibility of that. It’s hard to see how China will be able to get to zero Covid this winter.”

Still, the status has become a political point of pride for China, with authorities trumpeting their success in containing the virus as an ideological and moral victory over the U.S. and other nations now treating the virus as endemic.

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