China is now in the grip of its worst Covid-19 outbreak, having been forced to dismantle its restrictive virus control measures when near-unprecedented protests erupted against the Xi Jinping administration. The story emerging from the country is not unlike what we heard the world over – beginning with China itself in early 2020, then the first European hotspots, followed by the US, the UK and India. The familiar tale includes skyrocketing infections and deaths, overwhelmed clinics and funeral homes, and mass shortages of essential medicines. Much of the world lived through this saga in some form or another, except China, which instead had a spectator’s view as the world convulsed through the pandemic. When the world locked down in pandemic Year One, there was even a much-publicised pool party at the coronavirus’s epicentre, Wuhan, in August that year.
That China’s iron-fisted approach was, in reality, scientifically ham-handed is now clear. Beijing held onto the belief that Zero Covid –locking down till last of infections recover – was wise, even when other countries (like much smaller island nations of Australia and New Zealand) showed it was untenable. The country also refused to course correct on its vaccines, which showed subpar efficacy against the earliest variants and were all but useless against newer versions of the Sars-CoV-2. While other countries completed the first round of mass vaccinations within 2021, nearly half of those above the age of 80 in China – the most vulnerable to Covid-19 — are today estimated to be unvaccinated, hesitant as they are to take a dose they do not think will work.
It is clear, then, that while China was closely watching how the coronavirus rampaged elsewhere, it refused to learn the lessons the world learnt years, if not months, ago. It failed to arm its population with the sort of immunity needed to coexist with the virus. In doing so, it has not only jeopardised the lives of its 1.4 billion people, but has now revived the spectre of a more dangerous variant coming into the picture. The longer the virus spreads, the more it evolves, and when it spreads in population with a new immune profile, the odds of unpredictable mutations rise. This makes China’s current outbreak not only the biggest pandemic threat since the outbreak of Omicron variant a year ago, but a reminder that ignoring science is the biggest mistake a government can make.
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