Only China now clings to the dream of a Covid-free world
As more and more countries report surging Covid cases, has the dream of Zero Covid finally been extinguished?
Take New Zealand, where a rigorous Zero Covid plan was implemented from the start. Earlier this month, just as the country finally decided to open its borders, New Zealand experienced its worst ever Covid outbreak. Meanwhile in Western Australia, another Zero Covid outpost, Omicron cases have been growing at record rates despite Premier Mark McGowan imposing strict restrictions and delaying reopening the state’s hard border.
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Hong Kong too has lost its Zero Covid status. Cases have skyrocketed in spite of tough laws and harsh restrictions, including the slaughter of thousands of hamsters earlier this year in case they carried the virus. The rising cases are particularly concerning given the relatively low proportion of elderly people vaccinated in the city, a situation said to be in part due to the previous success of Zero Covid.
The plan to eradicate Covid from the globe entirely initially seemed a tempting response to a difficult pandemic. After all, who wouldn’t want a world free of Covid? However, it has long been clear to most mainstream scientists that after Covid had spread widely in March 2020, Zero Covid was an unachievable ambition. As Chris Whitty once famously explained: “the chances of eradicating this disease – which means getting rid of it absolutely everywhere – are as close to zero as makes no difference”.
Nonetheless, the idea of Zero Covid quickly developed into an ideology, and eventually a movement. Organisations such as the Covid Action Group, were formed with the aim of lobbying governments around the world. Policy suggestions included splitting countries into protected zones, with restricted travel and internal checkpoints, managed isolation of cases and contacts in quarantine facilities, and five-week strict lockdowns — all in the hope that Covid could be eliminated from a region, and eventually eradicated altogether.
While the strategy may have made sense for some island nations in a pre-vaccine world, the advent of vaccines changed the calculus. It still took many months for Zero Covid countries to drop the policy, reopen their borders and accept community transmission of covid. However, some commentators and politicians still cling to Zero Covid, even though the holdouts are fewer and fewer.
The last hope for the Zero Covid ideology now seems to be China. There, the government employs harsh, liberty-crushing restrictions such as mass detentions, quarantine camps, and brutal lockdowns, which have reportedly brought some cities to the brink of starvation. However, reports suggest that despite such stringent policies, even China is barely holding on to its Zero Covid ambitions, as Omicron and Delta spread throughout the country.
To many, including Chris Whitty, it may seem obvious that Zero Covid is not an achievable goal. Perhaps recent events will force remaining proponents to admit to this too, but given that eradicating Covid has long been a near-impossible ambition, it may take far more than these changing circumstances for believers to give up their dream of a Covid free world.