Zero-COVID policy protects health, saves lives

(| Updated : 2022-02-07

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When I woke up on the morning of Jan 26, I got some good news: My residential compound in Tianjin's Jinnan district would officially return to normal life, 18 days after the Omicron variant of COVID-19 entered the northern port city.

To be honest, I didn't expect the outbreak to be contained in such a short time and with very low cost--fewer than 400 people were infected, nearly 100 have already been cured and people's daily necessities were guaranteed during the epidemic prevention and control period.

The victory in Tianjin proves again China's dynamic zero-COVID approach is effective in epidemic prevention and control as well as ensuring people's health.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the 150th Executive Board meeting held on Jan 24, that an average of 100 new COVID-19 cases happened every three seconds the past week, and one person died of it every 12 seconds. But in China, the last death caused by the virus in the country — home to 1.4 billion people — was in January last year.

Some Western countries appear to have chosen to "lie flat" and get herd immunity by coexisting with the virus. There is even a trend on social media spreading the idea of intentionally trying to catch Omicron, an idea that was dismissed by experts from home and abroad. Zhang Wenhong, a well-respected Chinese infectious disease expert, slammed the notion Omicron causes merely an "enhanced influenza" and warned that the variant would "bite people".

Robert Murphy, executive director of the Havey Institute for Global Health at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in the US also warned people in a CNN report, "People are talking about Omicron like it's a bad cold. It is not a bad cold...It's a life-threatening disease." He also pointed out the trend of people deliberately catching any variant of SARS-CoV-2 would "keep the pandemic going and stress the health care system."

It is not breaking news that America's health care system has long been overwhelmed. Recent data released by the US Department of Health and Human Services found ICUs across the country were more than 80 percent full, with almost 30 percent of beds being used to treat COVID-19 patients.

Another dire result of the Western countries' laissez-faire approach to the pandemic is their death toll. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the US daily average of COVID-19 deaths hit its highest level since February 2021 after the Omicron variant led to a record number of new confirmed cases: the seven-day average daily death toll reached 2,191 on the 24th, an increase of about 1,000 people compared to when the Omicron variant was first discovered in the United States two months prior.

Put aside the fact the population of the US is only equivalent to the total of South China's Guangdong, East China's Shandong, and Central China's Henan provinces, and that it boasts the most advanced medical system in the world. If China, with a much larger population adopted a "lying flat" policy, what would happen to its people? Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, once forecast in last November that there would have been 47.8 million infections and 950,000 deaths had China not implemented its COVID-19 policies resolutely or consistently. How disastrous would that be?

Each and every life counts. That's the motive behind China's dynamic zero-COVID approach. It is never rigid or unchanging, as some Western countries allege, but flexible and evolving with the epidemic situation. Authorities have been perfecting the approach in a thoughtful way to minimize disruption to social functions. In recent flare-ups in both Shanghai and Suifenhe of Heilongjiang province, local governments have adopted more precise anti-epidemic measures. Instead of massive lockdowns, they sealed off places where COVID-19 patients had physically been, such as a milk tea shop, the one and only one place given that treatment in Shanghai.

As for Tianjin, where I personally witnessed and experienced the fight against the virus, I've been most impressed with the city's supportive policies to meet people's daily needs while trying to contain the spread. Tianjin University, the first modern university in China, even managed to secure a chartered airplane to fly 160 students back to their hometown in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, as all flights from Tianjin to Xinjiang had been grounded due to the pandemic.

As the WHO chief warned the COVID-19 pandemic is "nowhere near over" on Jan 20, a dynamic zero-case policy is still the best choice for epidemic prevention and control in China.

Yin Wei is a faculty member at Tianjin University's Communication Office.