China's zero-covid policy was unsustainable and was abruptly reversed, but the lack of a coherent retreat strategy threatens a new nightmare for its people, its economy, and the leadership of the Communist Party. A new crisis could shake the whole world. As the Wuhan outbreak three years ago demonstrated, what started in China will not necessarily stay there.
President Xi Jinping's government imposed draconian requirements for lockdowns, tests, and forced quarantine for much of the pandemic. But after the Dec. 7 repeal, these measures were followed by little leadership from above. The Chinese party-state usually claims to have everything under control. Right now, it seems to be not at all calm. A wave of Omicron infections has swept Beijing and may soon hit the rest of China. It has caused a panic buying of food and cold remedies. The government, known for its toughness and confidence, stopped reporting some daily data on infections and deactivated the ubiquitous COVID-19 tracking app, adding to the uncertainty. Instead of enjoying their newfound freedom and going outside, many people are scared and hiding inside.
China has difficult days ahead . Among those 60 and older, only about 69 percent have received booster vaccinations, and among those over 80, even fewer have. They are extremely vulnerable to omicron, and reports from China indicate that a spike in deaths has already begun, with crematoria operating around the clock. Mathematical models predict 1 million or more deaths early next year. The Chinese government has announced a plan to accelerate vaccination campaigns for the elderly who are hesitant to vaccinate. China has long grossly underestimated covid mortality and is likely to continue to do so.
One danger is that the outbreak in China will lead to new variants that threaten the rest of the world. It is impossible to predict, but previous variants with a transmissible edge have spread quite rapidly. Millions of infections in China increase the chances of a new variant.
Mr. Xi's motive for abandoning the zero-coronavirus policy was to give a boost to a lagging economy burdened by blockades and worker unrest. But the new approach could deliver a U-turn on the economy. It causes widespread disruptions in production and supply chains. If China's production slows down, the world will feel the pain of shortages and inflation.
China has unwisely abandoned effective mRNA vaccines in favor of less effective Chinese-made vaccines . The population has not been exposed to widespread omicron, so they lack natural immunity. A potential lifeline is the aerosol vaccine developed by CanSino Biologics. It is offered as a booster dose in the form of an aerosol inhaled by mouth, after studies have shown that it induces an immune system response in people who have previously received two injections of the Chinese vaccine. The best strategy is to press this vaccine and import millions of mRNA vaccinations.
The rare public protests that erupted in late November played a role in Mr. Xi's decision to get rid of the coronavirus. Protesters' anger could easily return if the situation worsens and people lose faith.