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China’s relaxed zero COVID policy and the world in 2023, By Isaac N Obasi

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This piece may appear alarmist but the truth is that once bitten, twice shy, as an adage says. The world cannot afford to be in another pandemic mode now, and for this to happen all countries of the world should adopt appropriate police responses to the current resurgence of coronavirus (COVID-19) in China. This is not a matter of individual country’s choice but one of collective action out of necessity. This collective action requires that all people travelling out of China to other countries of the world, should be targeted with one form of policy response or another starting at a minimum with a presentation of a negative PCR Test. This is not a call for discriminatory action but one in the interest of global public health.

Three years after the emergence of the virus, China has continued to witness the persistence of the virus and its resurgence. It appears the Chinese government’s Zero COVID policy (comprising multi-pronged measures such as contact tracing, mass testing, quarantine of the infected in government facilities, and strict or total lockdown of a whole city, among others) has not been effective to arrest the worsening situation.

 Following mass protests against the zero policy across China, the government relaxed the implementation of the policy. One of the relaxed measures is the re-opening of its borders to allow people travel out of the country. It was reported that following this, many people jubilantly rushed to embassies to process their travel documents. Given China’s huge population, many countries of the world would be potential recipients of these intending travelers. This is where the entire world would once again will be placed at risk as the virus will be spread all over, as we witnessed three years ago.  

The resurgence and continued onrush of COVID-19 in China poses a grave risk to the world in 2023 particularly in the economic, political, social, and health spheres of life. Already, the global economic outlook in 2023 is not cheering to warrant any big threat that could worsen the situation. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), one third of the global economy in 2023, is going to experience recession. This in itself is a major crisis to deal with across the world. Added to this is that the Russian-Ukraine war is intensifying with Russia’s increased offensive. Expectedly, Ukraine has been resisting with its indomitable spirit. So if millions of Chinese travel out of their country following the relaxing of the zero COVID policy, the situation will worsen the economic well-being of people across the world particularly in the existing areas of energy, food and inflation crises. 

The emergence of COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the world in many respects. Physical (social) interactions became highly limited and regulated. International travels and tourism, education, international trade and commerce, sports and other entertainment activities, suffered in an unprecedented manner. Above all, many lives were lost across the world. The virus induced widespread poverty and hunger (some call it hunger-virus) in many countries of the world. Although China struggled very well to control the spread of the virus, however it was overwhelmed and so was the entire world. But the discovery of vaccines became a game changer and by December 2021, (two years after the emergence of the virus), the world started witnessing a receding of the scourge as it gradually became an epidemic (restricted to few countries including China). 

By the second quarter of 2022, the pandemic was virtually under control across the world. There was a huge sigh of relief. It appears that this relief is being threatened, with the continued presence and resurgence of the virus in China. But more disturbing is that with the recent relaxation of its zero COVID policy, the effects are increasingly being felt across the world. Already, Nigeria has recorded 35 new cases of COVID-19 infection in one week according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). We expect this number to be rising with the return of many of those who travelled out of the country for the Christmas holidays. What should now be our response?

Our individual response should be predicated upon taking personal responsibility. This involves going back to the expected behaviour under COVID-19 period which requires that we start observing the non-pharmaceutical interventions such as wearing of face mask, sanitising our hands, keeping social distancing, among others. 

But Nigeria’s public policy response should be the re-introduction of the relaxed measures that targeted international travelers from countries that posed great risk to us. In this particular case, travelers from China should be the main focus as well as countries that refuse to impose restrictions on travelers from China. My take here is that all countries of the world should take immediate action that is collectively targeted on China-bound travelers. This also requires that Nigerians going to, and returning from China should be targeted also. The unforgettable lessons of COVID-19 pandemic should help the world to avoid the mistakes of the past. We should be well-ahead of the virus otherwise, it may overwhelm us again.

It is gladdening that the World Health Organisation (WHO) is already “very concerned” about what is presently happening in China. It has expressed worry over the limited information on cases of infection, hospitalisation and deaths. As Aljazeera of 21 December reported, the Director-General of WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has appealed to China for detailed information as it battles a surge of COVID cases. This is against the background that some critics are more direct in accusing China of under-reporting statistics over which the WHO is very concerned. For example, the stoppage of reporting cases of infection by China was seen by many as not being transparent as well as not being healthy for the international scientific community, which should know what is happening.

It would be recalled that under COVID-19 pandemic, China was also accused of not being transparent in the management of the virus. We are all witnesses to what the entire world went through for a period of two years. It is unthinkable now that anyone will want the world to go through such dreadful experience again in this year 2023. If China is helpless, the world should help itself by doing the needful. This is where a policy response against Chinese travelers is relevant in every country. The WHO should also provide the needed guidance in this regard.   

•Prof. Obasi who wrote on COVID-19 for two years in this column, is the author of a forthcoming book on Nigeria’s Policy Response to COVID-19 Pandemic. Email: [email protected]

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