It feels eerily like early 2020 again. China is the global epicentre of Covid-19. Countries across the world are scrambling to impose restrictions on travellers from the country. Meanwhile, the severity of the outbreak within China is obscured by spin, dubious statistics, and government opacity. Xi Jinping’s botched exit from his “zero-Covid” policy earlier in December — which lifted measures including mass testing and lockdowns — has overwhelmed many hospitals. Now, after almost three years in isolation, the decision to reopen Chinese borders, from January 8, has turned its domestic mismanagement into a potential global problem — again.
While the world is now better prepared to deal with a wave of Covid cases from China, significant health risks remain. Strong vaccination rates means many nations are already learning to live with the virus. But in developing countries, where inoculation remains weak, there continues to be vulnerability. There are also concerns that China may again be lax in sharing data on evolving strains that could drive new outbreaks, and that health services could be stretched over the fluey winter months. Indeed, after years of seclusion, demand for international travel among China’s 1.4bn population is soaring.
The world needs to tread with care. In China, tens of millions are being infected daily. The death toll is obscured by Beijing’s recently narrowed definition of Covid-19 fatalities — but bodies seen at hospitals and crematoria paint a grimmer picture. Plans to lift quarantine requirements for inbound travellers, remove caps on flights arriving into China and ease outward travel bring significant risks for a country that under “zero-Covid” built up little immunity. Vaccination rates are low among the elderly too.
Those risks threaten to spread, spurring some countries into pre-emptive action. The US this week joined others including Italy and Japan in imposing testing requirements for passengers from China. It is an understandable precaution, especially for countries like Italy, which is desperate to avoid a repeat of March 2020, when it became the first major European country to experience a severe Covid outbreak.
Yet both pre-departure and on-arrival testing is far from foolproof. It also has limited worth — particularly when countries are adopting a patchwork approach and when there is no evidence as yet of a dangerous mutation. The world is also in a different position now, in terms of existing disease spread and protection. Far more important would be a revival of widespread genomic sequencing to spot dangerous new variants (which might be made easier by some on-arrival testing): many countries downgraded their capabilities as the pandemic waned, or never developed them. China’s reopening is a reminder that a more concerted push towards sequencing and global information-sharing is crucial.
Beijing’s co-operation is vital. Its obfuscation over the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan three years ago was deplorable. Today’s lack of transparency is no less reprehensible. Unreliable data on cases and deaths within the country makes it harder for others to respond proportionately. Indeed, the US CDC cited the lack of “transparent epidemiological and viral genomic sequence data” from China as a reason for its new measures. Misinformation also complicates internal efforts to lower cases.
While draconian measures helped to contain Covid-19 in China, Xi’s dramatic volte-face and lack of preparation for reopening now risks it spiralling out of control across the country. To guard against a resurgence of the pandemic elsewhere, co-ordinated global vigilance, rather than scattershot restrictions, should be the priority.