Opinion | China’s new covid nightmare may become a global catastrophe

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China’s “zero covid” policy was unsustainable and abruptly scrapped, but the absence of a coherent fallback strategy threatens a fresh set of nightmares for its population, its economy and the Communist Party leadership. A new crisis could shake the whole world. As the Wuhan outbreak demonstrated three years ago, what begins in China does not necessarily stay there.

President Xi Jinping’s government had imposed draconian requirements for lockdowns, tests and forced quarantines during most of the pandemic. But once lifted on Dec. 7, the measures were followed by little guidance from the top. China’s party-state usually declares that everything is under control. Now, it appears to be quite unsettled. A wave of omicron infections is sweeping Beijing and might soon hit the rest of China. It has triggered panic buying of food and cold remedies. A government known for its rigidity and certitude stopped reporting some daily infections data and deactivated the ubiquitous covid-19 tracking app, adding to the uncertainty. Instead of basking in newfound freedom to go out, many people are scared, hunkering down inside.

China has troubled days ahead. Among those 60 years and older, only about 69 percent have received booster shots, and the uptake is even less among those over 80 years old. They are extremely vulnerable to omicron, and reports from China have indicated that a surge of deaths has already started, with crematoria working around-the-clock. Mathematical models predict 1 million or more deaths early next year. China’s government has announced a plan to accelerate vaccination campaigns for the elderly, who have been hesitant to get the shots. For a long while, China has grossly underreported deaths due to covid and probably will continue to do so.

One danger is that China’s outbreak will generate new variants that threaten the rest of the world. It is impossible to predict, but previous variants with a transmission edge have spread rather quickly. Millions of infections in China increase the chances of a new variant rising.

Mr. Xi’s motive for ditching the zero-covid policy was to kick-start a lagging economy, burdened by lockdowns and worker unrest. But the new approach might deal a roundhouse blow to the economy. It is causing widespread disruption to production and supply chains. Should China’s manufacturing slow, the world will feel the pain in the form of shortages and inflation.

China unwisely eschewed the effective mRNA vaccines for less-effective Chinese-made shots. The population has not been widely exposed to omicron, and thus lacks natural immunity. A potential lifeline is an aerosol vaccine developed by CanSino Biologics. It is being offered as a booster, in the form of an inhaled mist taken in through the mouth, after studies show it triggered an immune system response in people who had previously received two shots of a Chinese vaccine. The best strategy is pressing this vaccine and importing millions of mRNA shots, too.

Rare public protests that erupted in late November played a role in Mr. Xi’s decision to dump zero covid. Protesters’ wrath could easily return if the situation deteriorates and people lose more faith.

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