The Chinese government is committed to eradicating covid internally by maintaining endless waves of mass testing, tracking the contacts of those infected (through the use of metadata), locking down numerous urban areas when necessary, and, above all, closing the country to the outside world hoping that, in the meantime, Covid-19 is eradicated in the rest of the world. But many countries (especially in Africa) have not yet managed to vaccinate their citizens. In some countries, the population does not seem to trust the vaccines (e.g. Russia), and in many others the approach is to accept that it is impossible to contain the virus and opted instead on rapid vaccination and live with successive waves of infection, particularly with highly contagious but less deadly variants such as Omicron, with an eventual goal of herd immunity.
Not only does the Chinese government not intend to reverse its policy, it has been reinforcing it since the beginning of 2022. Some analysts believe that this is primarily due to both low vaccination rates in the older population (<20% of the elderly aged 80+ have received their third dose), and to regional disparities in social services and health care. While Hong Kong studies comparing the Coronavac to BioNTech’s vaccine are inconclusive, the government does not seem to have much confidence in the efficacy of Chinese vaccines, including booster shots – overwhelmingly made with traditional Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, even though BioNTech also produces mRNA vaccines in China.
Meanwhile, the prudent WHO has come out and said that the zero-Covid policy is “unsustainable” given a highly contagious variant is raging around the world and is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
The Chinese leadership is facing a dilemma: if, for health reasons arising from the zero-Covid policy, it continues to maintain lockdowns of large urban areas with severe limitations on road traffic and ports, the estimated GDP for 2022 will continue to decline gradually but inexorably; the latest estimates from Bloomberg Economics forecasts a mere growth of 2%.
On May 19th, the Chinese PM, Li Keqiang, admitted in a videoconference to 100,000 officials that it is possible this second quarter will see no growth of the Chinese economy. If Chinese leadership changes the zero-Covid policy or eliminates sanitary confinements from large urban areas, it risks having tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people infected with the Omicron variant and more than a million people dead in the short term. The Chinese leadership will not take that risk: until the 20th CCP congress in October of this year, the guidelines are clear on “the primacy of stability.”
The Chinese leadership is a prisoner of its own zero-Covid policy, and of the stance it took months ago in proclaiming success in combating the pandemic when it was still just beginning.
A significant slowdown of the Chinese economy in 2022 is almost certain. GDP growth may either stay at 4% or not go beyond 1-2%. Given China’s importance to the world economy, tough times are ahead.