Zero-Covid and its discontents

Beijing’s failure to roll out an effective vaccination programme has forced it to rely on lockdowns. However, there are leftwing Sinophiles who want to emulate the Xi regime, writes Eddie Ford

For over two weeks in China there has been a wave of protests against the government’s strict zero-Covid policy - the authorities blame foreign “hostile forces” and seem to be combining harsh repression with concessions - well, if the situation in Guangzhou is anything to go by.

Naturally, Ben Chacko, Morning Star editor, attacks the BBC for exaggeration and implying that the current protests are “on a far larger scale than is actually the case” (Morning Star editorial, November 26-27). Any public protest in China is high-risk, and it is hardly the same as the Yellow Vests in France or a routine StWC demonstration from Portland Place to Parliament Green. That does not mean buying into the standard anti-China narrative of the western media - eg, the nonsense about ‘genocide’ of the Uighurs, and so on.

Widespread discontent is certainly real. After the denial and bumbling over the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, China has successfully fought the spread of the virus by imposing lockdowns. This has resulted in far fewer Covid deaths in China than in the ‘civilized’ west. The death rate in China is 10.38 per million; in the UK it is 2,668.64! However, the lockdowns have not been combined with the rollout of a vaccination programme that covers the vast mass of the population, especially the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to the infection.

Indeed in response to the spread of the Omicron variant and its sub-variants, Beijing has imposed a series of tough lockdowns, often without warning. Understandably, after two years of lockdowns, people are suffering from Covid fatigue. Why, when they see pictures of the Qatar World Cup, is the rest of the planet back to normal, while we are being confined to our homes, unable to leave them to purchase daily necessities?

The anti-lockdown protests seem to have escalated after a deadly fire, killing 10, broke out in a 21-storey residential block in the city of Urumqi, three months into a lockdown. Angered, people started to blame the lockdown for preventing firefighters from quickly reaching the building in time. Whether that is true or not is hardly the point. People are fed up with lockdowns … and the prospect of lockdowns continuing well into 2023.

In Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus first emerged, online videos showed thousands of people marching. There are reports that they ‘liberated’ locked-down neighbourhoods by removing fencing around residential compounds. In Beijing, hundreds of students staged peaceful demonstrations. As in other cities, people held blank pieces of paper, obviously a protest against the tightening of censorship under president Xi. Western reports also have chants of: “We don’t want PCR tests - we want freedom”. During other protests, there were slogans such as “Xi Jinping, step down” and “Communist Party, step down” - which, if true, indicates that there are powerful currents bubbling under the surface.

One of the most notable protests was at the Foxconn mega-factory in Zhengzhou - the world’s biggest iPhone manufacturer that employs 200,000 people. Since late October, workers have been prevented from leaving the factory as part of the “closed-loop management” that does not allow outside contact. This is in accordance with Beijing’s zero-Covid strategy. Videos show large numbers scaling barriers and fleeing home in open defiance of the lockdown. Workers were confronted by riot police - with many getting beaten.

Second rate

Zero-Covid was never going to work. Once the virus escaped Wuhan and spread throughout the world, lockdowns could only be a temporary fix. How can you isolate China? It is the workshop of the world with millions of international flights. As shown by Omicron, which appears to have originated in South Africa, no matter what checks you put in place, the virus will get in.

One problem for China is that its health service is inadequate. But, of course, China is still a ‘developing’ country, meaning that the numbers of doctors, nurses, hospitals, emergency beds, etc are relatively few and far between. Recent statistics show that China has fewer than five critical care beds per 100,000 people, compared to Germany’s 33.8 and America’s 34.3. Predictably, the UK scores badly with 7.3, which is surely a case of Britain going backwards.

Making things worse, the vaccines produced in China by Sinovac and Sinopharm are second-rate. In short, they are inactive vaccines that do not last as long and provide less protection than the ones manufactured in Germany, the US and Britain, particularly in relation to the Omicron variant. Studies by the World Health Organisation show that two doses of the Sinovac vaccine “prevented symptomatic disease in 51% of those vaccinated and prevented severe Covid-19 and hospitalisation in 100% of the studied population” for adults aged 18 and older.

Another big problem for China is that vaccination levels for the most vulnerable are low, especially for the over-80s. Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, estimates that only about 40% of this age group have received a booster shot, and millions remain unvaccinated - which is unsurprising, given that Beijing did not promote the vaccine to elderly groups until November 2021. There is, it should also be pointed out, a widespread vaccine scepticism amongst this, mainly rural, generation. This week, under a new plan for “strengthening coronavirus vaccination of the elderly”, China’s national health commission said it would target more vaccinations at the elderly and reduce to three months the gap between basic vaccination and booster shots. The way forward for China is obviously mass vaccination, even if that means, in the short term, importing mRNA vaccines, or coming to a licensing agreement for manufacturing them.


At this point, it is timely to remember those in Britain who have advocated the kind of zero-Covid strategy that has been played out in China. In November 2020 the Zero Covid Coalition was put together by Labour MP Diane Abbott and the Morning Star, and was backed by the hapless Jeremy Corbyn and many others - Richard Burgon, Stand Up To Racism, People Before Profit, The People’s Assembly, Howard Beckett, Unite the Union, Momentum, Helen O’Connor of the GMB, Richard Horton of the Lancet journal, etc, etc.

Abbott and the Star’s Ben Chacko penned a joint article demanding that the government “adopts a zero-Covid strategy to effectively eliminate the virus in the way that has been done in other countries” - just like China?1 Understandably, the Zero Covid Coalition morphed into Covid Action, which advocates a “comprehensive elimination strategy, based on tried-and-tested public health principles, as the only alternative to the UK government’s chaotic policy of ‘living with the virus’”. It went on to say that “our ‘vaccines-plus’ approach means that mass vaccination is at the heart of the elimination strategy”.2

As far as I can make out, both the Star and Abbott still subscribe to this approach, so it would be fascinating to know whether they support the Chinese crackdown on workers and students protesting against the zero-Covid policy, or believe that the virus in China has been “effectively” eliminated. A recent article informs us that old devotees and new converts to Mao-Deng-Xi thought “held a packed meeting” at the Marx Memorial Library to consider the “evolving significance of the Chinese revolution”, which has “prioritised saving lives” (November 28).

If the virus had been contained in Wuhan then a zero-Covid strategy would have been perfectly feasible. But once we had a pandemic, zero-Covid became a delusional fantasy. Covid-19 is here to stay. As with rhinovirus - the predominant cause of the common cold - and influenza, we have no choice but to learn to live with it. That said, since the 2010s there has been the annual flu jab, and today scientists think they are around 10 years away from developing a single vaccine to combat every variety of the common cold too - there are at least 160 different strains or serotypes. If we can do it for polio, smallpox, hepatitis A and hepatitis B, then we can certainly do it for Covid-19 and all its mutations.


  1. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/we-need-zero-covid-strategy.↩︎

  2. zerocovid.uk/about-us.↩︎