AGE OF THE DRAGON

China's risks pile up as Omicron arrives

China has turned to lockdowns in an effort to stymie the spread of Omicron in Beijing. Picture: Getty Images
China has turned to lockdowns in an effort to stymie the spread of Omicron in Beijing. Picture: Getty Images

On the surface, China's pandemic position looks a lot like Australia's situation of a few weeks ago. Because of a highly effective suppression strategy, its population has next to no infection-induced immunity, but it has the advantage of widespread vaccination.

Why, then, has it not done what most of Australia did with the arrival of the Omicron strain last month, throwing itself into an exit wave that, with luck, should transition the country into an era of endemic, manageable COVID-19?

Instead, China is still sealing itself off from the rest of the world, and its officials are trying harder and harder to suppress transmission.

What's frightening the scaredy cats of Beijing?

In the end, they may not have a choice in this matter. Omicron is out and about in their country. The Chinese Communist Party won't look good if it loses control after two years of telling the people that it, alone in the world, knows what it's doing.

And the Winter Olympics will begin on February 4. For such an international occasion, the country wants nothing to go wrong. Holding the event amid lockdowns and raging contagion would be a national embarrassment.

In fact, the imminence of the games is one explanation for China still struggling to suppress the pandemic - for appearances. The event is supposed to make Chinese feel proud in the international limelight.

Another likely explanation for the CCP's pandemic caution is that it doesn't have much confidence in the two home-grown vaccines that it has nationalistically insisted should be the only ones used in China.

By December 11, the country had fully vaccinated 82.5 per cent of its entire population, and that number should be rather higher by now. But outside of China its two vaccines, made by Sinovac and Sinopharm, haven't performed as well against earlier strains as Western alternatives have.

Sinovac's isn't adequate against Omicron even after three doses, according to researchers at the University of Hong Kong. Notably, the Sinopharm vaccine is made with similar technology.

The key issues in relation to the Chinese vaccines should be whether they do much to slow down transmission of lightning-fast Omicron and whether they are good at keeping its victims out of hospital. We don't know - but the CCP might, and it isn't taking its chances.

The reason why it might know while the rest of us don't is that China shares less information about fighting COVID-19 than other countries do, especially about vaccination. It prefers to soak up data from everyone else.

This is especially unbecoming behaviour for the country where the virus originated. (But, of course, the CCP's story is that the virus didn't come from China. And the Chinese people are happy to believe that.)

By the way, a year ago China was doing its best to internationally discredit foreign vaccines, such as the highly effective ones from Modern and Pfizer. Charming, eh?

Contagion running out of control and hospitals overflowing would be a worse political nightmare for the CCP than for almost any other governing party in the world.

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Since performing the impressive feat of rapidly suppressing the initial COVID-19 outbreak two years ago, the party has played up missteps in other countries, especially the US. Chinese people are now well trained to think that widespread infection is the result of astounding governmental incompetence.

So what will they think if it happens in China?

Worse, anything that endangers public health and safety is unusually sensitive in the country. A decade or so ago, scandals involving fake medicines, tainted milk and deadly train crashes caused remarkable public anger.

And Chinese people, on average, are fairly worried about contagious disease. Seeing a risk of infection, many would not consider buying second-hand clothes, for example.

We have all noticed in Australia that among our friends some are calm about COVID-19, some fearful and some just frantic. In China, fearfulness about it is pretty common.

Maybe that's because memories of life-threatening infection are fresher there than in the developed world, which largely overcame such public-health problems more than a century ago. Or so we thought.

Many Australians were surprised in February 2020 to see Chinese immigrants and visitors suddenly wearing masks in the street, even though there was hardly any COVID-19 in the country then. But this was no surprise to anyone who had lived in China.

Vaccine ineffectiveness and the risk of a propaganda misfire are the best explanations for the CCP being in no rush to accept an exit wave and try to transition to living with COVID-19.

I'm not sure how it expects to dig itself out of this hole. Getting better vaccines as fast as possible is surely a priority. How about Moderna and Pfizer?

One view among analysts is that China will try to suppress the virus until after a meeting of its parliament, the National People's Congress, in the northern-hemisphere autumn. That's another of those events that are supposed to proceed amid national serenity.

Another guess is that China will stick to its strategy until March 2023, when newly promoted officials will take over high government positions (while Xi Jinping hangs onto his place at the top).

But maybe it will have lost control long before then. Omicron has appeared so far in Beijing and the provinces Henan and Guangdong.

The government can resort to lockdowns, but it looks like they'll have to be pretty tough, if they work at all. The Netherlands has used a lockdown to restrain Omicron, but cases there have still risen.

The outlook for China doesn't seem promising.

  • Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.
This story China's risks pile up as Omicron arrives first appeared on The Canberra Times.