BEIJING (AP) — A campaign to vaccinate the elderly has sparked hopes that China can roll back strict virus controls that have prompted protesters to call for President Xi Jinping’s resignation, but the country faces daunting obstacles and up to a time of hard work before “zero”. COVID’ may end.
Stocks moved higher after the National Health Commission’s announcement on Monday of the long-awaited campaign. The low vaccination rate is one of the biggest obstacles to ending the restrictions that have confined millions of people to their homes, suppressed the economy and kept most visitors away from China. Health officials did not say how long it might take.
A vaccination campaign will take months, and China also needs to build up its hospitals and work out a long-term strategy for the virus, health experts and economists warn. They say “zero COVID” is likely to remain in place by mid-2023 and possibly by 2024.
“China is in no place right now to move away from a policy of ‘zero COVID’ to a policy of ‘living with COVID,'” said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist for Capital Economics. “The health care capacity is very weak.”
China, where the virus was first detected in late 2019 in the central city of Wuhan, is the latest major country to try to stop the transmission entirely. Others are relaxing controls and trying to live with the virus that has killed at least 6.6 million people worldwide and sickened nearly 650 million.
Chinese protesters accuse the ruling Communist Party of failing to chart a course away from restrictions that have repeatedly closed businesses and schools and suspended access to neighborhoods. Restrictions have kept case numbers lower than other countries, but are seen by the public and scientists as excessive.
Families confined to their homes for up to four months say they do not have reliable access to food and medicine. Others struggle to get treatment for other medical problems. Authorities faced public outrage over reports that two children in quarantine had died after their parents said their virus protection checks were blocking attempts to get emergency medical care.
The protests, the most widespread display of dissent in decades, erupted on Friday after a fire in Urumqi in the northwest killed at least 10 people. That prompted angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were prevented by locked doors or other controls. Authorities denied it, but the deaths became a focus of public outrage over the human cost of “zero COVID.”
The ruling party has promised to make the restrictions less intrusive and eased some controls this week after protests in Shanghai, Beijing and at least six other major cities. But party leaders said they were committed to “zero COVID” and gave no sign of when it might end.
On Wednesday, the Health Commission reported 37,828 new cases in the past 24 hours, including 33,540 without symptoms. The official death toll stands at 5,233 out of 319,536 confirmed cases, compared to 1.1 million deaths in the United States from nearly 100 million infections.
Beijing has sought to discredit the protesters by accusing them of working for “foreign powers,” a reference to long-standing allegations that Washington and other Western governments are trying to sabotage China’s economic and political rise.
On Tuesday, the ruling party’s legal affairs committee pledged to “resolutely combat the infiltration and sabotage activities of enemy forces.” His statement promises to carry out the spirit of a conference last month where Xi, China’s most powerful figure since at least the 1980s, awarded himself a third five-year term as leader.
The statement did not mention the protests and echoed routine proclamations issued after such party meetings. But it was a reminder of the ruling party’s determination to impose its will and its hostility to the opposition.
The National Health Commission said its campaign would encourage people over 60 to get vaccinated.
Many have avoided vaccines because of safety concerns and because, with few cases in China, their risk of infection was low.
The commission said it will send mobile vaccination units to reach people in their 70s and 80s who cannot leave home.
Nine out of 10 Chinese have been vaccinated, but only 66% of people over 80 have had a shot, while 40% have received a booster shot, according to the commission. He said 86% of people over 60 are vaccinated.
State media have described unvaccinated elderly people as being at “high risk” from the virus.
“We hope the elderly friends can actively complete vaccination as soon as possible,” said Commission spokesman Mi Feng.
China uses vaccines made by domestic developers, including Sinovac and Sinopharm. It has not approved mRNA vaccines like the one invented by Germany’s BioNTech, although a Chinese company bought distribution rights in 2020.
Last year, the country’s top infectious disease official acknowledged that these domestic vaccines were less effective.
However, ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, an infectious disease expert at Shanghai’s COVID-19 team expressed confidence that China can emerge from COVID-19 with the right vaccination program.
“Our diagnosis, treatment and vaccines have reached a very high level,” Zhang Wenhong told a medical conference on Nov. 18 in the southern city of Haikou. “We are fully capable of finally taming the coronavirus.”
But China’s small, overstretched health care system, especially in the poor, densely populated countryside, could be overwhelmed if infections rise as restrictions are eased.
China has 4.3 hospital beds per person, just half the average of eight in neighboring Mongolia, a much poorer country, according to the World Health Organization. Japan has 13 and South Korea has 12.5.
“China will never completely lift the restrictions on COVID like other countries,” said Yu Changping, a respiratory specialist at the People’s Hospital of Wuhan University.
“The epidemic will not go away in the next three or five years, and it may never go away,” Yu said. “It is a long-term task to prevent and control China.”
Outbreaks that began in October prompted affected communities to close shops and offices. Factories had to isolate workers from outside contact.
Economists estimate that these regions account for up to a third of China’s economic output. Some forecasts say China’s annual growth will remain below 3%less than half of 2021’s 8.1% expansion.
Although the case numbers are low, “there is certainly a risk that ‘zero COVID’ will fail at this point. It’s spreading quickly everywhere,” Williams said. “I think the response from the authorities would be to go back to the playbook from January, February 2020 and lock down everywhere.”