Zero COVID or live with the virus?

On Friday this week, the Department of Health reported a record high of 37,207 new COVID-19 cases. Nearly one out of two PCR tests administered yielded a positive result. In barely two weeks, cases shot up from about 400 a day in late December to more than 30,000 by the second week of January.

If this were China, everyone would be quickly ordered confined to their homes. With its 16,824 new cases (46 percent of the national total), the NCR would be placed on total lockdown. All services, except the most essential, would grind to a halt. Tens of thousands would be forcibly moved to isolation and quarantine facilities. Violators would be detained for defying restrictions on mobility.

In the tourist city of Xi’an (known for its Terracota Warriors), in northwestern China, the government imposed exactly this kind of instant and resolute lockdown on its 13 million residents in late December—in keeping with China’s iron-fist zero-COVID policy. Yet at least 95 percent of Xi’an’s adult residents are fully vaccinated. On Jan. 10, mirroring the same spikes noted globally, Xi’an recorded 2,017 new cases, the largest single cluster in all of China. The city had previously recorded only three COVID-related deaths.

Not used to living under the kind of lockdown first enforced in Wuhan two years ago, Xi’an’s citizens found their lives upended overnight. Food that was supposed to be delivered to every home failed to arrive. Many turned to social media to appeal for food. Individuals who tried to sneak out to buy necessities were promptly arrested by community volunteers and made to confess and denounce their lack of civic consciousness.

Billed as a matter of national pride, China’s unrelenting zero-COVID policy aims to track the virus down through mass testing and break the chain of its transmission through lockdowns — until its last traces will have been totally obliterated. But, given its untold human costs, zero-COVID policy is no longer being applied anywhere else outside of China. Even the World Health Organization has distanced itself from the authoritarianism of ruthless lockdowns, preferring instead to focus on achieving global vaccine equity as the key to solving the pandemic.

China’s virus experts and epidemiologists must know this too: that so long as the world’s poorest nations are unable to vaccinate even a tenth of their adult population, so long will the virus find new hosts to infect and further chances to evolve and mutate. Omicron is showing that striving for herd immunity in one country is an illusion. The virus has to be tamed globally if the pandemic is to end.

Yet China’s official stance seeks to de-emphasize the importance of vaccines in favor of controlling flare-ups through mandatory measures. A Global Times article that recently appeared in one of our broadsheets reports: “Experts also said the US is too superstitious about vaccines, and ignoring mandate measures will cost more American lives. Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital, told the Global Times that the US and Europe are too superstitious about vaccines despite the high rate of immune escape capability of the Omicron variant.”

China has made it clear that it is not prepared “to live with the virus.” The same Global Times commentary criticizes Western media for calling attention to the problems of people caught in endless lockdowns. It argues that what China did by focusing on the containment of domestic flare-ups was to buy time “for combating the virus and boosting economic recovery, which the West should thank China for.”

Chinese official propaganda can hardly conceal its schadenfreude over the Omicron surge that is now sweeping the US and nearly every corner of the world. “Health experts in the US and China said that the unprecedented surge in daily cases in the US proves that … treating the virus as a bad flu was a big mistake. Overconfidence and overreliance on vaccines without strict controls will cost more American lives from COVID-19 and other diseases, as American hospitals become overwhelmed and even paralyzed in the coming days. They predict that US daily cases are likely to surge to 1 million.”

After calling out Americans for “shouting, kissing, and dancing” their way through the Christmas and New Year celebrations, while ignoring minimum health protocols, China is about to face its own test of will in the coming Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games scheduled for early February. The Games will be open to domestic tourists but not to international visitors. Since the opening will coincide with the week-long annual Spring Festival celebrations, keeping daily infections down in the middle of an ongoing global Omicron surge will be a daunting challenge.

But here, in a kind of existential Olympics, are two contrasting, though not mutually exclusive, approaches to the pandemic. The first, “living with the virus,” relies heavily on the efficacy of vaccines, and only minimally on lockdowns and business closures, to keep the virus at bay. The second, “zero COVID,” as exemplified by China’s strategy, relies almost exclusively on stringent mandates, mass testing, and strict social controls to eradicate the virus.

The Duterte administration, which began with a Chinese-inspired but highly-fragmented zero-COVID strategy in 2020, has ended up, two years later, with an equally confused attempt to live with the virus. As in everything, this is what happens when a country fails to ground its national strategy in a concrete understanding of its own situation.