Zero Covid, breathtaking strategy

Most countries have abandoned it, with the exception of China. The zero Covid strategy to prevent any spread of the disease now seems anachronistic when it defended itself at the start of the pandemic.

“It was worth it”. This sentence, relayed to AFP by Hong Konger Jenny Leung, sums up the weariness and incomprehension of part of the population in the face of this strategy.

Ms Leung lost her job as a waitress last month due to zero Covid measures. And now, many in Hong Kong, a territory still hit by the recent high wave of the epidemic, are starting to think that maybe it’s time to live with the virus.

Why did you persist for so long? The question is even more acute in mainland China, where Covid zero persists as never before.

While other countries such as Australia and New Zealand eventually abandoned this strategy after being forced to do so for a long time, China, for example, has imposed severe restrictions in Shanghai in recent days, even separating the infected children with their parents. .

If China now appears to be the world’s exception, it has not always been so. At the beginning of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, many countries imposed strict restrictions, even if they were not qualified at the time as “zero Covid”.

– “Very low added value” –

But the situation has changed. The vaccines arrived in early 2021 and significantly reduced the risk of serious forms.

Then the Omicron variant, a priori less dangerous, even if it is difficult to say what exactly due to vaccination, also reduced the risks when testing the zero Covid strategy due to its high contagiousness.

In this context, “so much needs to be done to reduce transmission that we end up with very little added value in terms of health,” says Australian immunologist Sharon Levine of AFP.

But China’s persistence can be explained by the specific situation. Unlike Australia and New Zealand, which initially fell behind but ended up well vaccinated, China under-vaccinated its population.

This is especially the case for the elderly, who are most at risk of dying from Covid. Only half of Chinese people over 80 have been vaccinated. Moreover, it is Sinovak and Sinopharm vaccines that are used, which are not the most effective.

And due to insufficient vaccination, “we risk facing more deaths by easing Covid zero measures,” fears Andrew Lee, a public health specialist.

– Bitter population –

But everything is connected. Some research suggests that Covid zero discourages vaccination: how do you feel the need to do so when the virus isn’t circulating around you?

If older Hong Kongers don’t want to get vaccinated, it’s often because they “doubt the value of vaccination, especially in the context of a zero Covid strategy,” explains British epidemiologist Ben Cowling, who recently published a paper on the subject in The Lancet.

The Chinese population is not only insufficiently vaccinated, but also cannot count on post-infection immunity: by preventing almost any infection with the virus, the authorities did not allow it to develop.

The contrast, for example, is noticeable in South Africa, which lifted its Covid restrictions this week even though just over a third of the population has been vaccinated.

The country did not make as drastic a choice as the Covid zero countries and so most of the population was infected and certainly a heavy price to pay: 100,000 deaths versus, officially, hardly more than 10,000 in China for a much larger population .

In any case, the latest practitioners of Covid zero also run the risk of increasingly fragile support from their populations, sometimes bitter and tired after two years of drastic lockdowns.

“Zero Covid is a way of thinking that hurt everyone,” concludes Jenny Leung.

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