Residents get inoculated against the COVID-19 virus at a vaccination site in a stadium in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province, Aug. 2, 2021. The city of Nanjing has been organizing vaccinations from Sunday for those who are qualified to get the second shot in low-risk areas amid resurgence of COVID-19 infections.Photo:Xinhua
A Chinese net user's post suggesting "COVID city" to fend off the virus to maintain China's zero domestic infection approach, which was ignored by most Chinese and ridiculed by some who noticed the post, was reported by Asia Times on Monday and made a splash due to some Western media who lack understanding of China's COVID-19 response strategy but are eager to depict it in line with their negative perception of the strategy.
Speculating on whether China should change its strict epidemic control measures amid the Delta variant-related resurgence, the Hong Kong-based English media outlet cited a random source from a non-mainstream online forum's idea of building a "COVID city" to receive all international flights as a sole point of entry to the country and keeping domestic residents 100 kilometers away from it.
The Asia Times article also cited the latest post from Zhang Wenhong, a top Chinese epidemiologist, who advised the anti-epidemic fight over the past year, saying that it's a call to rethink epidemic policies, as the current measures adopted including citywide lockdowns and mass testing are costly.
Such an idea of building this so-called "COVID-19 city" is neither feasible nor ethical, a senior official from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told the Global Times on condition of anonymity. "Though there's no timeline when China will lift border restrictions, the country will do so in the future after meeting a number of requirements," he said.
China has been carefully exploring how to strike a balance between epidemic control and opening to the world, but the latter will never come at the cost of lives, experts stressed.
The "COVID city" post came up from a forum called Tianya and was reposted on Sina Weibo. However, it received little attention on both platforms. On Weibo, a more mainstream social media platform, a few netizens who noticed the post discussed it as a "pure joke" and some compared the "COVID city" to sci-fi's isolated mankind bases in times of crisis.
Hyping the "COVID city" came at a time when many Western media are raising doubts and speculations on whether China would change its "zero tolerance" epidemic response strategy, with many news outlets and observers paying great interest in reporting different ideas of a former Chinese health official and an expert on COVID-19 approaches.
They questioned China's model for containing the epidemic, claiming that "China's COVID-zero strategy risks leaving it isolated from the world for years." Such interpretation stemmed from the lack of the understanding of China's model in battling the epidemic, the senior Chinese official from China CDC and an epidemiologist said, as the country will eventually open up its borders after striking a balance between ensuring public health and security.
The doubts arose after Gao Qiang, China's former health minister, called for continuing rigorous epidemic prevention measures to keep the country virus-free, lambasting the idea of co-existing with the virus, which appeared to contradict an article from prominent expert Zhang Wenhong, who has been advising authorities in fighting the outbreaks and recently called for the wisdom of long-term co-existence with the virus, according to some media reports.
Some Western media outlets, including the Guardian, Bloomberg, the New York Times, Fortune magazine and the Financial Times, also amplified those doubts by questioning China's COVID-19 response, saying that the Delta outbreak "imperils" its zero-tolerance policy, and asked whether China's vigorous epidemic control measures have come to an end amid growing differences between officials and scientists. For instance, Bloomberg reported on Monday that China's approach risks leaving the world's second-biggest economy isolated for years to come, saying that in achieving zero infections, the Chinese government has taken aggressive moves, increasing trumpeting the success in containing the virus as "an ideological and moral victory" over the US and other countries.
"There's no fundamental dispute among officials and experts on China's model in fighting the epidemic, as saying 'co-existence with the virus' can't be interpreted out of context, given the characteristics of the virus such as the viral mutations and transmissibility," the official from the CDC said.
However, it's a misinterpretation to take Zhang's call for wisdom of living with the virus as a laissez-faire attitude by abandoning the strict epidemic control measures that China has adopted over the past year, which have proven effective and prioritize people's lives, the official said, noting that the ultimate goal is to adjust the COVID-19 response by lifting border controls. But before that, a number of factors must be evaluated.
It was not the first time that the Western media and observers cast a shadow on China's COVID-19 response by distorting open discussions among Chinese experts, amplifying the doubts over certain policies and coming up with some speculations on adjustments in border restrictions. After the outbreak in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province, was successfully contained in 2020, some foreign scholars and media outlets attributed China's swiftness in bringing the epidemic under control to the so-called "authoritarian" model.
But, besides different governance systems, whether to respect science and act professionally also contributed to the different epidemic control results, Chinese observers and officials noted.
Adjustment in policies
While Bloomberg questioned China's COVID-19 response, saying it risks leaving the country isolated from the world, the Financial Times also said in a recent article that China lacks the COVID-19 exit strategy as it strives for zero infections. But prominent Chinese epidemiologists refuted such claims.
"China won't remain unchanged. We have to always consider our needs to decide when to eventually open up. And to make sure the co-existence with the virus, we have to ensure that the virus load won't threaten human beings, as until now, the human society has not eliminated any virus except smallpox," Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese CDC, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
There are certain criteria to meet for the co-existence with the virus — for example, to reach a basic immunity level or increase the immunity among designated groups of people, experts said. More importantly, it's also a test of pressure-bearing capacity of Chinese society including the level of hospitalizations and deaths.
China's top epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan recently said that China needs to vaccinate about 83 percent of its population to achieve herd immunity. While China has administered the most vaccine doses in the world, but the proportion of vaccinations per 100 people is still not high due to the large population.
Compared to China's COVID-19 response, some Western countries like the US adopted a completely different way as they lifted restrictions on epidemic control measures at the cost of the lives and risked a humanity crisis, which won't happen in China, experts said.
"So far, we still stick to our zero-tolerance policy which is very necessary and China has done well with it. Through clearing up the cases, we also gained benefits, boosting economic recovery," Zeng said.
When China meets those criteria to live with the virus, that would also be a good time to lift border controls, some experts said, noting that it would be the moment China makes major adjustments in its epidemic policy.