Health experts warn of impending public health crisis as China quickly adapts itself to herd immunity policy

Vice Premier Sun Chunlan’s comments on Wednesday about the “mildness” of Omicron and the need to move away from the strict public health measures that kept infections and deaths from COVID-19 to an enviable minimum in China amount to the death knell for the Zero-COVID policy.

It was more than just ushering in less stringent measures, not based on any scientific merits, with the empty promises of keeping the virus in check. Fundamentally, every country that lifted their elimination strategy quickly passed through a (rhetorical) mitigation posture and then succumbed to the herd immunity policy, seeing bodies pile high as they shifted to prioritizing the economy. Unless there is a swift reversal, China too will undergo these shocks to its population in the course of the next several weeks as COVID-19 begins its massive assault.

Immediately after Sun’s open declaration of needing a new strategy for the pandemic, at least a dozen cities across China let loose their measures over the weekend to contain the virus, scrapping the frequent and mandatory testing that characterized previous responses to surges of COVID-19 infections.

A health worker in protective suit takes a throat swab sample from a resident at an outdoor coronavirus testing site, Wednesday, March 23, 2022, in Beijing, China. [AP Photo/Andy Wong]

According to the Global Times, cities like Zhuai in China’s Guangdong province and Chongqing municipality have been urged by health authorities not to conduct nucleic acid (PCR) tests unless necessary.

Other regions will allow people testing positive for COVID-19 to quarantine at home, to alleviate the financial burden on the community’s health care resources. However, this will create a situation in which families and their elders will now be exposed to COVID-19 and create new vectors of transmission that were previously checked.

Although COVID-19 cases continue to be at pandemic highs, China only registered 32,824 new cases on Sunday. The rapid abandonment of mass testing means that the health authorities are quickly losing sight of the true scale of infections and where they are being transmitted. And like their counterparts in the West, they are taking a defensive position with respect to these dangerous shifts in public health policy.

Respiratory expert Dr. Wang Guangfa of Peking University First Hospital told the GlobalTimes, “I don’t take current adjustments as a ‘lying flat’ move nor a complete opening-up. [But] we have optimized our epidemic control measures in line with the characteristics of the virus variant, striking a new balance between epidemic control and social and economic activities.”

Striking a note of compromise, he added, “But it’s unlikely that we’ll walk out of the pandemic in a short time during this winter as many countries are facing similar resurgences.”

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