Zero Covid Strategy: Two Years Later

Lockdown ticks towards the one-month mark with no approaching end, my dad’s stash of chocolate runs low, and my mom’s store of coffee dwindles. Government-distributed food ensures that citizens won’t die, but avoiding starvation is a low bar to pass. Many communities and apartment complexes have formed groups with one objective: get food. Surgeons butchering a whole pig for neighbors with their scalpels, sprigs of homegrown green onions being traded for knobs of ginger—these are just some of the desperate measures people have taken during the lockdown.

This is life in Shanghai under China’s Zero Covid Strategy. Testing is frequent, and anyone found positive is sent to a centralized quarantine facility. Those in the area around the positive case are self-quarantined.

The strategy was enacted in late March when Shanghai began to experience partial lockdowns as a few cases popped up around the city. As cases continue to spread, a partial lockdown became the total lockdown of the bustling city’s 26.3 million residences. As the roads of my perpetually moving home city are left deserted, has China’s Zero Covid Strategy been successful?

Answering this question with a simple “yes” or “no” would be a completely unfair assessment of such a complex problem. Western news outlets often do not give China credit for its successes, choosing instead to zoom in on shortcomings, presenting a skewed image of reality. However, China’s strategy worked excellently to contain the initial wave of infection. It was effective, though not the perfect strategy (the perfect strategy would’ve been to stop the pandemic before it ever happened, but here we are). Since then, the coronavirus has mutated into several variants, each with subtly different characteristics. Even though Covid-19 has been a perpetually changing threat, China’s strategy has not changed. Shanghai has locked down the same way Wuhan was locked down years ago. Now facing Omicron, new conditions aren’t being faced with fittingly different responses.

China’s government lends itself to extreme and decisive measures such as these. In 2020, during the initial outbreak of Covid, China’s Zero Covid strategy worked. Made possible by the quick and widespread countermeasures, China returned to relative normalcy after about half a year, save for new masking habits and other pandemic related changes in lifestyle. Further, China was able to dodge the high inflation rates and labor shortages that plagued the United States. As the nature of the pandemic shifts from the original situation used to formulate the Zero Covid Strategy, measures used to contain the initial outbreak remained passably effective until they weren’t.

However, what China’s government does not lend itself to is quick adaptation. They are struggling to pivot out of a once effective response into a more suitable one. Residents have enjoyed normal productivity and life for the past year or so with Covid-19 remaining largely contained until now. China now faces a more viral, less deadly virus than from two years ago that requires different cautionary measures.

The Zero Covid Strategy was a necessary stopgap while the government investigated the source of the pandemic and developed treatments and vaccines. The cost of these policies was a price worth paying if it bought time for virologists. Covid-19 was a monster hiding in the dark, prowling between coughs and sneezes. No matter how scary this monster seemed two years ago, Covid-19 is a virus that has been under the scrutiny of scientists around the world for a long while now. A monster is not as scary when it has been dragged into the light, unknown variables since being defined. The stopgap used as a reprieve for solution finding is no longer needed.

Whether or not China’s Zero Covid Strategy has failed, I cannot say. While it has found great success, it struggles to keep up with new Covid variants. Extreme response to any and all signs of infection will be unsustainable heading into the future. There seems to be an outlook towards a post-Covid era as communities in America approach higher vaccination rates and herd immunity, but what is China’s plan? China simply cannot move into the post-Covid world with Zero Covid policies as is. The end of the lockdowns in Shanghai remains without a date, as unclear as China’s future changes in policy. As for now, I can only enjoy the longer phone calls I have with my parents who now find themselves with hours of free time.