Zero Covid in China

China’s zero-Covid policy has kept deaths very low. Can it continue?

By David Leonhardt and Ian Prasad Philbrick

World leaders are increasingly deciding that their countries need to figure out how to live with Covid-19 rather than minimize the number of cases.

Britain, France, Denmark, Turkey and other parts of Europe have loosened restrictions. Australia has dropped mask mandates and reopened its border. South Africa has lifted curfews and required schools to open fully.

China is doing none of this.

As the Beijing Olympics begin, China continues to pursue a “zero Covid” policy. The Olympics will have few fans. As it has for almost two years, China responds to new outbreaks by imposing strict lockdowns. In the northwestern city of Lanzhou last year, officials told roughly four million people to stay home in response to fewer than 50 known cases.

China’s strategy has had both major successes (holding deaths to low levels) and major costs (disrupting daily life even more than in other countries). It makes for a fascinating case study at a time when Americans disagree vehemently — and often along partisan lines — about whether to maintain Covid precautions or return to normal.

China’s strategy would obviously not be possible in a country that emphasizes individual rights as much as the U.S. does. But China’s strategy does show what a society can do when it makes the prevention of Covid its No. 1 priority, almost regardless of the side effects.

A question that experts are asking now is whether China’s strategy is sustainable, given the contagiousness of Omicron. For now, China’s leaders are sticking with it.

The benefits

Data coming out of China can be suspect, and local officials apparently undercounted Covid cases early in the pandemic to hide the scale of the outbreak. But most experts believe the country’s official Covid counts have been at least close to accurate for most of the past two years.

That’s partly because big outbreaks are hard to cover up, and partly because China’s leadership has threatened to punish officials who hide cases. As Amy Qin, a Times correspondent who covers China, told us, “Local officials have every incentive to find the infections and stop the spread before they get out of hand.”

Even if China’s official numbers are artificially low, its true Covid death toll is almost certainly much lower than that of the U.S., Europe or many other countries. Consider how enormous the official gap is:

Cumulative deaths per million

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