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What Justifies China’s Zero-COVID Policy?

In the years since COVID-19’s emergence, China has devised and implemented a highly effective disease-outbreak response system. While this has not eliminated the need for lockdowns, as in Shanghai, it has enabled far more limited and targeted closures.

SHANGHAI – A tough decision to lockdown Shanghai, China’s largest city, shocked the world. After six weeks, and despite a sharp decline in infections, Shanghai’s lockdown has imposed enormous costs on the city and its residents. Given that the Omicron variant has a low mortality rate among the vaccinated, and much of the rest of the world has been convinced to shift their strategies from lockdowns and movement restrictions to mass immunization, critics wonder why China’s zero-COVID policy is here to stay.

When COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, China was ill-prepared for such a disease outbreak. While the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention had been established in 2002, it was never consolidated nor had it ever operated efficiently, despite the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) the following year. So, when COVID-19, with its comparatively higher mortality rate, came along, China’s government had little choice but to adopt a wartime model, shutting down the city and mobilizing additional resources (including medical personnel) on an emergency basis.

The Wuhan lockdown, which lasted 76 days, was vital under those circumstances. But if China had had an epidemiology-backed disease-outbreak response system in place, the severest restrictions probably could have been avoided, or at least shortened considerably.

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