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4 April 2022

How Omicron is testing China’s zero-Covid strategy

The country is enduring its biggest rise in coronavirus cases since the pandemic began.

China is experiencing its biggest rise in Covid-19 infections since the start of the pandemic in 2020. The country, which had a policy of reaching zero infections, has managed to live virus-free for much of the pandemic but the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has meant parts of China have had to be put back into lockdown.

Shanghai, which reported more than 9,000 new infections on Sunday (3 April), went into a four-day lockdown on 28 March, with tight restrictions on movement remaining. China plans to test all 26 million residents of the city as cases continue to rise despite the lockdown. Healthcare workers and military personnel have been sent in to help the operation.

In Hong Kong, which has also had a zero-Covid policy, Omicron swept through the population in February and March. The virus was aided there by relatively low immunity levels among the elderly population because of low rates of vaccination and prior infection. In mainland China, too, only around half of those over the age of 80 are fully vaccinated, and less than a fifth have had a booster dose.

Even though the case numbers are still small by international standards (by comparison, the UK reported an average 75,364 cases a day over the last week), the rising numbers threaten to undermine China’s strategy, and locking down entire cities could lead to serious economic woes.

[See also: Did the UK perform better than we thought on Covid-19?]

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