‘Irresponsible’: China hits back at WHO criticism of zero-Covid strategy

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 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

China has dismissed critical remarks made by the World Health Organisation against its pursuit of ‘zero-Covid’ and said it will continue to enforce the controversial strategy.

The Chinese foreign ministry urged the WHO to “refrain from making irresponsible remarks” after director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the country’s current approach to Covid, in attempting to eradicate transmission, was not sustainable.

“When we talk about the ‘zero-Covid,’ we don't think that it's sustainable, considering the behavior of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future,” Dr Ghebreyesus said.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, hit back at a daily briefing on Wednesday, saying: “We hope that relevant people can view China's policy of epidemic prevention and control objectively and rationally, get more knowledge about the facts and refrain from making irresponsible remarks.

“The Chinese government's policy of epidemic prevention and control can stand the test of history, and our prevention and control measures are scientific and effective. China is one of the most successful countries in epidemic prevention and control in the world, which is obvious to all of the international community.”

The clash of words marked a rare public show of friction between China and the WHO, which has been accused of succumbing to Chinese pressure to avoid criticism and awkward questions about the origins of the virus that was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

China's ruling Communist Party has strictly controlled all discussion about its controversial approach, which aims to totally stamp out outbreaks, and said it would tolerate no criticism, questioning or distortion of the strategy. The entirely state-controlled media did not report on the comments by the WHO and references to them on the Chinese internet appeared to have been removed by censors.

The implementation of zero-Covid has stirred considerable resentment in Shanghai, where some residents have been under lockdown for more than a month. As of Wednesday, more than 2 million people in the city remained confined to their residential compounds, while restrictions had been slightly relaxed for most of the other 23 million.

Following the WHO’s remarks, officials in Shanghai have reaffirmed that the city would maintain the “zero-Covid” approach to eliminate a waning outbreak in China's largest city.

While progress has been made, relaxing prevention and control measures could allow the virus to rebound, deputy director of Shanghai's Center for Disease Control Wu Huanyu told reporters on Wednesday.

“At the same time, now is also the most difficult and critical moment for our city to achieve zero-Covid,” Wu said at a daily briefing.

“Should we relax our vigilance, the epidemic may rebound, so it is necessary to persistently implement the prevention and control work without relaxing,” he said.

A modelling study published in Nature Medicine on Tuesday said that China could see an Omicron wave resulting in approximately 1.55 million deaths and a projected intensive care unit peak demand of up to 15.6 times the existing capacity, should its current zero-COVID strategy be lifted.

Unvaccinated people 60 years of age and older are projected to account for 74.7 per cent of the total number of deaths due to the gap in vaccination coverage.

China’s current strategy has been in place since August 2021 to respond to Sars-CoV-2 variants with higher levels of transmissibility, such as Delta and Omicron.

The contagiousness of Omicron and its various sub-variants have made the prospect of eradicating Covid within a population increasingly faint. In many countries, the prevalence of the virus has become endemic in populations.

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Speaking alongside Dr Ghebreyesus, Mike Ryan, the WHO's emergencies chief, who said pandemic control actions should “show due respect to individual and human rights”.

Countries need to “balance the control measures, the impact on society, the impact on the economy. That is not always an easy calibration to make,” he added.

In Shanghai, the daily number of new cases reported on Wednesday had fallen to less than 1,500, down from a peak of 26,000 in mid-April. Seven more Covid-related deaths were reported, raising the toll from the outbreak to 560.

While China says more than 88 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated, the rate is considerably lower among the vulnerable elderly. Questions have also been raised about the efficacy of Chinese-produced vaccines compared to those from Europe and the United States.

Complaints against the country’s zero-civid strategy have centred on shortages of food and other daily necessities and the forced removal of thousands of people to quarantine centres after having tested positive or having been in contact with an infected person.

Along with the human cost, the adherence to ‘zero-Covid’ as many other countries loosen restrictions and try to live with the virus is exacting a growing economic toll.

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