China is rapidly opening up after years of its “zero Covid” policy, with strict lockdowns, mandatory testing and significant travel restrictions. But the major policy shift could create further complications in China as people resume international travel and geopolitically as a patchwork of countries impose restrictions on Chinese air travelers.
USA, UK, Italy, India, Israel, Spain, Canada, South Korea and France all have some form of restrictions on air travel from China. This usually means that a passenger boarding in China and bound for one of these countries cannot board without a negative test or, in the case of Spain, without having been vaccinated. But policies around infectious diseases are difficult to make without accurate data on cases, hospitalizations and deaths, which China has failed to collect and disseminate since returning to zero Covid in end of December.
It is too early to say exactly what the impact of the policy change is I will have; although China appears to be experiencing a large wave of infections at present, this has not translated into large infections outside the country. But because Chinese travelers have not been through multiple waves, they could be more vulnerable to infection.
Furthermore, there is no strong scientific evidence to support travel restrictions. “We’ve seen time and time again with this pandemic that a patchwork response, whether national or global, does little to curb the disease,” Saskia Popescu, assistant professor in the biodefense program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason. University, he told Vox via email. “Furthermore, travel bans and testing requirements are not as effective as they neglect the porous nature of borders, the reality of disease transmission, and are reactive rather than proactive.”
China reverses Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy and cases rise
Chinese President Xi Jinping withdrew restrictions on his signature policy after widespread protests against strict lockdowns and mandatory testing that began in November. Although Xi’s government had announced a 20-point plan to ease those restrictions earlier that month, the protests, some of which called for Xi’s resignation, appeared to hasten the unraveling of Xi’s policy.
The draconian lockdowns, notably in Shanghai, FoxConn’s iPhone factory in Zhengzhou and Urumqi, Xinjiang, have left people without access to food, and many in Xinjiang believe the zero-Covid measures there, which banned people from leaving their apartments their. prevented emergency workers from helping people who were locked in their homes when a fire broke out in a Urumqi apartment building.
In the month since, the set of policies that Xi once said “prioritized people and their lives above all else” has quickly collapsed, leaving in its wake a significant rise in infections and a strained health care system.
“I think we should be concerned about what’s happening in China — about the Chinese,” Andrew Pollard, chairman of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, told BBC News Hour on Saturday. “Within the country, there’s a large number of Covids that are spreading right now, the Omicron variant is there and it’s spreading extremely well between people. And they’ve had no previous waves of Covid… so we would expect a huge number of infections to happen.”
Officially, China has recorded just over 5,000 deaths from Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, which Pollard admitted is possible if that number only counts people who died of the disease without other underlying conditions. But the numbers are likely much higher, he said, if those cases are included, and are likely to rise as the disease spreads, particularly among the elderly who are less likely to be vaccinated.
Already, reports coming out of China show a hospital system under pressure due to a rise in Covid-19 cases, as well as crematoria and funeral homes being squeezed under the death toll.
The zero-Covid shutdown was, as Victor Shih, a China policy expert at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy told the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, likely a complicated decision motivated by economic and employment problems at home as well as from general dissatisfaction. and protest. However, Xi will have to deal with the consequences of his decisions – both the draconian lockdowns he implemented and trumpeted for three years, and the potential wave of Covid-19 infections and deaths that will follow China’s reopening. That fallout, Shih said, is likely to mean more protests of the kind seen in November, and likely increased skepticism about China’s economic and governance models, both at home and abroad.
“Some serious damage is being done to public confidence,” John Delury, a China expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, told the Financial Times. “We may not see the immediate consequences of this. But it goes to the public reckoning on how capable their government is. This is the worst possible start to Xi’s third term.”
The world is better equipped to deal with Covid-19, but there are still many unknowns
The end of Covid-Zero also means the end of nationwide disease surveillance. As Yang Zhang, professor of sociology and Chinese politics at American University tweeted in December about tracking Covid-19 cases in China“I don’t think the Chinese state had the capacity to collect, model and evaluate provincial/municipal infection data on a daily basis [sic] in the last month. After the sudden opening, this is a daunting task (for any state). They just gave up.”
This is a possible scenario, but I don’t think the Chinese state has had the ability to collect, model and evaluate regional/municipal contamination data on a daily basis for the past month. After the sudden opening, this is a daunting task (for any state). They just gave up.
— Yang Zhang (@ProfYangZhang) December 26, 2022
Without sufficient information about vaccine effectiveness, infections, hospitalizations and deaths, it is difficult to model how the disease might spread and to make reasonable policies to mitigate the disease—hence the patchwork of air travel restrictions now.
“We’re flying blind without more information, but this is also an issue we’re facing in the U.S. as the CDC has changed community transmission level thresholds, testing centers have closed and home testing has gone unreported,” Popescu said. “Ultimately, this should be a lesson that we can’t really deal with an outbreak or pandemic if data is lacking anywhere.”
Just as at the beginning of the pandemic, countries do not agree on how to deal with potential new cases arriving via air travel. three years later, Popescu said, countries imposing restrictions are not necessarily choosing effective ones. “Even [in the beginning of the pandemic] a travel ban is not supported by science and has frankly been shown to be ineffective at screening.” The best travel restrictions can do with a disease of this magnitude is to buy governments time to prepare for its spread.
Italy, which has imposed a testing restriction on air travelers from China, has encouraged other European Union countries to do the same. France and Spain have also implemented restrictions, but the EU as a whole has so far refused to do so. In a place like Europe where land travel between countries is fairly painless, “testing passengers from one country is not effective in containing the disease (the horse is essentially out of the barn),” Popescu said. Moreover, he said, “testing is reactive,” not proactive, he said — Italy implemented its testing mandate after cases were detected on flights that arrived in Milan on Dec. 26.
One positive sign from Italy’s testing program is that no new variants appear to be coming from China — meaning, as far as researchers can tell, travelers infected with Covid from China do not pose a greater risk to , say, the US population than an American citizen infected with Covid-19.
The risks are likely higher for Chinese travelers, who may encounter an unknown variant during their travels or go unvaccinated, although about 91 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times.
Although the world is better equipped to manage Covid-19 from 2020, the patchwork of restrictions in response to China’s reopening still shows major flaws in the world’s ability to deal with the pandemic in a unified, coherent way, Popescu said . Covid-19 is likely to be endemic for years to come. events such as China’s reopening and the potential for new variants and waves of disease “should serve as reminders of the importance of global health, vaccine equity, and partnerships in preventive public health interventions.