China could eventually co-exist with Covid: Top scientist
March 1, 2022 11:40 AM
China could move away from its zero-Covid strategy "in the near future" and co-exist with the virus, a top Chinese scientist said in a possible sign that the country's leadership is rethinking its strict approach.
The country where the coronavirus was first detected in 2019 is now one of the last places still hewing to a zero-tolerance approach, responding to small outbreaks with snap lockdowns and cutting off most international travel.
But fatigue over disruptions to everyday life as well as semi-autonomous Hong Kong's struggle to contain a mass Omicron outbreak have raised questions about the sustainability of China's approach.
China's strategy against Covid-19 cannot "remain unchanged forever" and "it is the long-term goal of humanity to co-exist with the virus" at tolerable death and illness rates, Zeng Guang wrote in a social media post Monday.
Zeng is the former chief scientist of China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention and one of the experts behind the country's initial Covid response.
Zeng said that while China's approach had prevented the early chaos of widespread infection experienced by many Western countries, the country's low infection rate was now a "soft spot" as far fewer people had built up natural immunity.
He said Western countries were now showing "commendable courage" in exploring how to live with the virus and that China should "observe and learn" even though there was still "no need to open the country's doors at the peak of the global pandemic".
"In the near future, at the right time, the roadmap for Chinese-style co-existence with the virus should be presented," Zeng wrote on the Weibo platform.
Zeng's comment are unusual for an official in China's government, which has touted its low infection rates to the Chinese public as a sign of the superiority of its approach.
Experts who previously questioned "zero Covid" have faced a backlash, including prominent scientist Zhang Wenhong who was attacked by online trolls and probed for plagiarism after a similar Weibo post in July.
Zeng's post did not appear to make as much of a splash online, attracting only a few thousand comments on a platform where trending topics normally engage millions of users.
Lockdown fears spark panic buying in Hong Kong
Hong Kongers stripped supermarket shelves bare Tuesday as panic buying set in following mixed messaging from the government over whether it plans a lockdown this month.
Uncertainty over Covid rules has sent the city's residents flocking to supermarkets, chemists and vegetable stores to stock up, leaving shelves empty across the city.
Photos circulating on social media showed people had trouble finding a variety of items including meat, vegetables, frozen foods, noodles, paracetamol and testing kits.
The financial hub is currently in the grips of its worst coronavirus outbreak, registering tens of thousands of new cases each day, overwhelming hospitals and shattering the city's zero-Covid strategy.
Authorities plan to test all 7.4 million residents this month and isolate all infections either at home or in a series of camps that are still being constructed with the help of mainland China.
City leader Carrie Lam had initially ruled out a mainland style lockdown where people are confined to their homes during the testing period.
But on Monday, health chief Sophia Chan confirmed it was still on the table, a day after a senior Chinese health official described it as the best option.
On Tuesday multiple pro-government Hong Kong media citing official sources also said authorities were looking at a variety of lockdown options for the test period.
One of the most densely populated cities on earth, Hong Kong's supermarkets have limited backroom storage space and saw waves of panic buying at the start of the pandemic two years ago.
The vast majority of its food is imported from mainland China and the current supply crunch has been worsened by cross border truckers getting infected by the high transmissible Omicron variant.
More than 190,000 infections have been recorded in the last two months compared to just 12,000 for the rest of the pandemic.
The government released a statement late Monday saying food supplies remained constant and that there was no need for panic buying.
But analysts said uncertainty and distrust were fuelling consumer habits.
"We have so many questions but all answers are 'to be confirmed'," Chan Ka-lok, an international politics scholar at Baptist University, wrote on social media.
"Rush to buy and stock up, let the people decide how to live their life."
Tom Grundy, editor of the Hong Kong Free Press news website, described the latest panic buying as "a massive failure of gov't communications"
"Rules changing every few days, u-turns, botched stats, poor data disclosure," he wrote on Twitter.
Faith in government assurances is low in Hong Kong, where authorities have carried out a two year crackdown on dissent after huge democracy protests.
The decision to mass test residents was also itself a policy u-turn -- Lam had previously ruled out such a step before backing it last month.