From Australia to South Korea and across Asia Pacific, the last “zero-Covid” bastions are relaxing restrictions and opening borders as the region prepares to live with the virus – with one major exception.
China, where Covid-19 was discovered nearly two years ago, is still determined to eradicate the virus within its borders, with officials showing no signs of relenting.
Despite fully vaccinating more than 75% of its population, China maintains its strict zero-Covid strategy, which includes closed borders, lengthy quarantine measures for all international arrivals, and local lockdowns in the event of an outbreak. Lanzhou, a city in northwest China with a population of more than 4 million people, went into lockdown on Tuesday after only six new daily Covid-19 cases were reported there. Lanzhou has recorded 68 cases associated with the most recent outbreak.
And this approach appears to be here to stay, at least for the time being. Despite the fact that some Chinese health officials have suggested a tentative or partial relaxation once vaccination rates reach 85 percent, analysts believe most restrictions will not be eased within the next year.
Despite thousands of new confirmed cases every week, South Korea will begin to live with the virus on Monday. New measures will allow up to 10 people to meet in private gatherings across the country, while most businesses will be permitted to fully reopen as curfews end.
While Japan and South Korea maintain strict border controls, including quarantines for most international arrivals, Thailand will welcome visitors from 63 countries beginning Monday, as long as they can prove they are fully vaccinated and have tested negative for Covid-19.
It, like many other Asia Pacific countries, had early success in controlling infections. While Europe and North America experienced significant outbreaks in 2020, countries such as South Korea, China, Thailand, and Australia were able to keep the virus at manageable levels – or kept it out for extended periods of time. A curfew of 10 p.m. on businesses, including restaurants and bars, has been lifted, and mass gatherings of up to 499 people are permitted if everyone is vaccinated. According to the Education Ministry, all students will return to school on November 22.
Citizens of dozens of “low-risk” countries, including Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, will be able to travel to Thailand without being quarantined beginning Monday. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha stated on October 12 that the country could not afford to miss the December holiday period. “We must act quickly, but still cautiously, and not miss the opportunity to entice some of the year-end and new year holiday season travelers,” he said.
The emergence of zero-Covid is an experiment in the Asia Pacific region to see if populations that previously valued low infection rates and an elimination strategy can safely transition to living with the virus.
Australia’s two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, have already abandoned the elimination strategy, opting to live with the virus once more than 70% of the adult population had been fully vaccinated.
The upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which are set to begin in February, are one of the reasons for China’s reluctance to reopen its borders. The Chinese government is unlikely to want a repeat of the chaos and postponements that marked the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.
According to Steven Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, the 2022 Winter Olympics aren’t the only major event taking place next year that is factoring into Beijing’s strategy. The Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th Congress in November, a twice-decade mass meeting of the country’s leadership where President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term.
According to Chen of the University of Oxford, there could also be doubts about the efficacy of Chinese-developed vaccines among the country’s leaders. Sinovac, one of the most commonly used shots, has been shown in international trials to have much lower levels of efficacy than mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna.
Chen believes China will likely wait to see what happens in the rest of the region before deciding what to do about its own borders. If there are few major outbreaks of Covid in Asia Pacific countries, Beijing may consider an earlier opening, he said.