Skip to main content

A worker in a protective suit sprays disinfectant at a COVID-19 testing site in Beijing, on May 11.Andy Wong/The Associated Press

World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has become the latest target of China’s censors, as Beijing attempts to manage discontent with its draconian “zero-COVID” policies.

At a media briefing Tuesday, Dr. Tedros said the WHO believes China’s pandemic approach “will not be sustainable” and recommended a shift in policy.

“The virus is evolving, changing its behaviours, becoming more transmissible,” he told reporters. “When we talk about a ‘zero-COVID’ strategy, we don’t think it’s sustainable.”

Speaking after Dr. Tedros, WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said governments “need to balance the control measures against the impact they have on society, the impact they have on the economy.”

The WHO officials’ comments were initially shared on Chinese social media, including by verified accounts linked to the United Nations, but the posts were later deleted. Posts under a hashtag on Weibo – “WHO says China’s zero policy is unsustainable” – were also disabled.

Asked about Dr. Tedros’s comments at a regular news conference Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he hoped “the relevant individual can view Chinese COVID policy objectively and rationally and know the facts, instead of making irresponsible remarks.”

Last week, at a meeting chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping, officials vowed to “unswervingly adhere to the general policy of ‘dynamic zero-COVID’ and resolutely fight against any words and acts that distort, doubt or deny our country’s epidemic prevention policies.”

Controls in Beijing, Shanghai and a number of other cities experiencing minor outbreaks have been redoubled, as has online censorship of anyone questioning the approach. This despite the fact cases are down to fewer than 2,000 nationally, from a peak of about 53,000 in mid-April.

Renewed clampdowns have been met with anger and despair, particularly in Shanghai, where some residents have been confined to their homes for more than six weeks – except for brief excursions for daily COVID-19 tests. This week, many neighbourhoods that had been gradually opening up reversed course, banning food deliveries and forcing residents to rely on government provisions, which in the past have been severely limited or arrived late.

Even those implementing the new restrictions do not seem to understand them. In one widely shared video, a Shanghai police officer admits he has no answers for people questioning why they have to be sent to a quarantine camp.

“Stop asking me why – there is no why,” the officer says. “We have to adhere to national guidelines.”

Anti-pandemic workers, known as “big whites” for the colour of their head-to-toe hazmat gear, have faced increasing resistance as people become more frustrated with the lockdowns and accounts of abuse by authorities spread online.

On Tuesday, the government of Shanghai said workers will no longer enter people’s homes without permission, after instances of “big whites” forcing their way into residences for forcible disinfection.

In an open letter published online Sunday, a group of 20 academics, led by Tong Zhiwei, a prominent Shanghai law professor and Communist Party member, urged authorities to stop “excessive pandemic prevention.”

“Pandemic prevention needs to be balanced with ensuring people’s rights and freedoms,” the letter said.

“Local governments and officials need to act strictly according to the constitution and laws and cannot destroy the rule of law for convenience.”

Like Dr. Tedros’s criticisms, however, this missive was quickly censored, and Prof. Tong’s Weibo account was suspended.

Writing in the South China Morning Post, Shi Jiangtao, a journalist and former Chinese diplomat, said censorship and media controls risk having the opposite effect of what officials intend.

“Without offering an actual fix or hopes for solutions, it could be dangerous to simply censor and suppress views that are critical of some of the inhumane lockdown measures amid the simmering outrage that has ripped across social media,” he wrote, adding that the government needs to “find better ways to explain to the public its inflexibility over the zero-COVID strategy.”

Beijing’s fear of what could happen if pandemic measures are relaxed is legitimate, fuelled by concerns about poor vaccination coverage among some demographics – and potentially less effective jabs than those used elsewhere – and the vulnerability of the country’s health care system if cases were to spike around the nation.

More than 3.05 billion vaccine doses have been administered in China, according to the country’s National Health Commission, with about 87 per cent of the population fully vaccinated. But this is skewed toward younger people, with the NHC saying in March that only 20 per cent of people 80 and older and 48 per cent of people in their 70s had received a booster shot.

While there have been significant efforts to improve coverage, recent NHC statistics suggest vaccination has in fact slowed significantly among the elderly, with the rate of booster shots halving between late March and early May.

In a paper published by the journal Nature this week, a group of researchers at Shanghai’s Fudan University warned that current vaccine coverage “would be insufficient to prevent an Omicron wave that would result in exceeding critical care capacity with a projected intensive care unit peak demand of 15.6 times the existing capacity and causing approximately 1.55 million deaths.”

The country’s zero-COVID policy is proving increasingly costly, however, and not just socially. China’s economy is suffering as a result of the lockdowns and controls on nationwide travel. The jobless rate is at its highest since May, 2020, and on Saturday Premier Li Keqiang warned that employment faced a “complex and grave” situation. Few analysts expect China to hit its official growth target for this year of about 5.5 per cent, even with significant government intervention.

Veteran China watcher Bill Bishop said the country’s leaders are “stuck in a terrible dilemma.”

“There are still far too many unvaccinated people, and letting outbreaks run would likely result in a collapse of the medical system and mass death,” he wrote in his newsletter, Sinocism. “But persisting with this policy risks undermining everything they have achieved over the last two years.”

With reports from Alexandra Li and Reuters.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.