On Tuesday, the northwestern city of Lanzhou, with a population of more than 4 million, entered quarantine after only six new daily cases of Covid-19 were reported there. To date, Lanzhou has registered 68 cases related to the latest outbreak.
And that approach looks set to stay, at least for now. Even though some Chinese health officials have suggested temporary or partial easing once vaccination rates hit 85%, analysts say most restrictions are not expected to ease over the next 12 months.
Among China’s neighbors in Asia-Pacific, however, things couldn’t be more different.
From Monday, South Korea will start living with the virus despite thousands of new confirmed cases every week. New measures will allow up to 10 people to meet in private meetings across the country, while most businesses will be allowed to fully reopen when curfews end.
And it’s not just national restrictions that are being lifted in the region.
And on Monday, Australia also begins to partially reopen its borders to fully vaccinated citizens, ending a strict border regime that has separated families for nearly two years.
South Korea’s Return to “Normal Life”
South Korea was one of the first countries to experience a major Covid-19 outbreak, with hundreds of cases per day as of March 2020.
It quickly got the infections under control, as many other countries in the Asia-Pacific have done. While Europe and North America suffered major outbreaks in 2020, countries like South Korea, China, Thailand and Australia have managed to keep the virus at manageable levels – or the kept away for long periods of time.
âWith the Delta variant, it’s almost impossible to eradicate,â said Zhengming Chen, professor of epidemiology at the University of Oxford. âThe experience in Australia and New Zealand, they’ve tried really hard, but you get to a point where you just can’t go on with the lockdown anymore. It’s going to come back again and again.â
On Friday, with at least 73% of South Korea’s population now fully immunized, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said it was time for the country to “take the first step to get back to our normal lives.”
A 22-hour curfew in shops, including restaurants and bars, has been lifted, while mass gatherings of up to 499 people can take place if everyone is vaccinated. All students will return to school starting Nov. 22, according to the Department of Education.
The removal of restrictions comes despite the increase in Covid-19 cases over the past week. South Korea reported 1,686 new infections on Sunday, bringing its total to 366,386 since the start of the pandemic. To date, 2,858 have died in South Korea from the disease.
Prime Minister Kim said this was not the end of the fight against Covid-19, “but a new beginning”. The country’s health minister also warned that there would likely be an increase in infections following the reopening.
Other countries in the region are following suit, despite local epidemics of the virus.
Over the past week, Thailand has reported an average of almost 9,000 new Covid-19 infections per day, far more than the months of single-digit cases for much of 2020. Despite infection rates high, the country is set to reopen to international travelers in an attempt to save its tourism industry, which accounted for more than 11% of its GDP in 2019, according to Reuters.
As of Monday, citizens of dozens of “low-risk” countries, including Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, can travel to Thailand without needing to self-quarantine. In an October 12 statement, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the country could not afford to miss the December holiday period. “We need to act quickly, but always with caution, and not miss the opportunity to attract some of the holiday and New Year travelers,” he said.
For the Asia-Pacific region, the emergence of zero-Covid is an experiment to see if populations who previously cherished low infection rates and an elimination strategy can safely move on to living with the virus.
Australia’s two largest states, New South Wales and Victoria, have already abandoned the elimination strategy, starting to live with the virus once more than 70% of the adult population has been fully vaccinated.
So far, infection rates have not increased and on Monday Australia’s borders in some states will reopen to citizens for the first time.
Chen said that while cases would certainly increase, the vaccination has significantly reduced the severity of Covid-19 for many patients and given countries the opportunity to reopen.
âAt some point you have to open up, you have to actually allow the cases to increase, but in a manageable way,â he said. “You can’t just have a permanent lockdown because the virus is circulating there.”
China doubles zero-Covid
But China shows no sign of loosening its hardline approach to Covid-19.
Currently, China’s borders are mostly closed, air travel is drastically reduced, and foreign students and tourists are barred from entry. Chinese citizens and some other international visitors can enter, but they must self-quarantine for at least two weeks.
Inside the country, even a small number of cases in one city results in swift and drastic closures.
The upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, due to start in February, partly explain China’s reluctance to reopen its borders. After seeing the chaos and postponements that marked the preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, the Chinese government is unlikely to want a repeat.
But the 2022 Winter Olympics aren’t the only major event next year that plays into Beijing’s strategy, according to Steven Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute. In November, the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th Congress, a biannual mass meeting of leaders of the country where President Xi Jinping is expected to cement a third term.
Tsang said Xi didn’t want any signs the virus was out of control inside the country before going to Congress in November. “How can Xi Jinping appear not to have beaten the virus?” he said. âXi said the Chinese system is superior.
“As a global financial center, it needs to have a much more user-friendly entry system, but the Chinese point of view, Xi’s point of view, on Hong Kong is that it is a center. global financial support for China, âhe said.
Chen, of the University of Oxford, said it was also possible that there was uncertainty about the effectiveness of vaccines developed in China among the country’s leaders. One of the most commonly used vaccines, Sinovac, has been shown to have much lower levels of efficacy in international trials than mRNA vaccines including Pfizer and Moderna.
In addition, he said few tests had been done on older people, leaving them potentially vulnerable in the event of an outbreak.
“Why shouldn’t we open up? He said, according to the China Daily, a state newspaper.
Chen said it’s likely China will look at what’s going on in the rest of the region before deciding what to do about its own borders. If there are few major outbreaks in Asia-Pacific countries living with Covid, then perhaps Beijing will consider opening earlier, he said.
âIt gives China a little confidence to relax,â he said.