Over the next few years, most people in the world, including China, are likely to be exposed to the coronavirus. With an incubation time potentially as short as three days, and many infected people being asymptomatic, the virus will spread rapidly. By the time an outbreak is identified, it will have moved to another city.
We can begin to see the future in many Chinese cities, most prominently in Xi’an, more than 600 miles from Beijing. Last month, the government locked down Xi’an’s 13 million residents in response to a relatively small outbreak of the Delta variant, which is less transmissible than Omicron. This strict lockdown lasted about three weeks. There also has been spread in Tianjin, a city near Beijing. Alarmingly, epidemiological research on a sizable number of the people infected with Omicron in Tianjin found that about 95 percent of them had been fully vaccinated with the Chinese vaccines. And on Jan. 15, Chinese officials said Beijing’s first case of the Omicron variant had been found, leading to a localized lockdown and mass testing.
This spread is most likely sending shudders through President Xi and the Chinese leadership. Reflexively, they are likely to clamp down harder. But a zero-Covid policy means the Chinese will always be chasing an ever moving target. And they will never win. Inevitably this will have serious economic impacts for China — and for all of us, given the country’s position in the world economy. While China remains the production capital of the world, this is unlikely to be sustainable should lockdowns ensue. Businesses outside of China are likely to become increasingly hesitant to partner with Chinese ventures when they are unable to enter the country to meet partners and inspect factories that face unpredictable closings. Declines in Chinese production would upend supply chains and the availability of goods everywhere, including in the United States.
Other countries can provide a road map that China can put into action. Denmark, Germany and some other European countries, as well as Australia, have achieved strong immunity without suffering the U.S. death rate. They used effective vaccines, made smarter decisions about when and where to impose lockdowns and protected the most vulnerable — older people and those with compromised immune systems. Community spread resulted, but it would have been inevitable, even with longer or more severe lockdowns, and it allowed those countries to build up immunity.
China’s elaborate containment efforts planned for the Olympics may prevent a Covid outbreak — and we certainly hope that is the case. But a zero-Covid policy is a losing long-term strategy.
Ezekiel J. Emanuel (@ZekeEmanuel) is a physician, vice provost for global initiatives and a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Michael T. Osterholm (@mtosterholm) is an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.