The coronavirus is spreading through Hong Kong, Shenzhen and other cities in China like a bush fire; tens of millions of Chinese have been ordered to stay at home yet again. Shanghai, a city of 26 million souls, has been split in two. Those on the eastern side of the Huangpu River will be locked down until Friday, their west bank neighbours from the start of April.
It won’t work. Like a new Mercedes, the BA.2 model of the omicron variant of the Sars-CoV-2 virus is faster, quieter and 30 per cent more prolific. There is no chance of stopping it with lockdowns, mass testing or social distancing – even in Xi Jinping’s China.
The only remedy is vaccination, which won’t stop infection but will moderate the symptoms enough to save a lot of lives, as it has done here. But, having invented its own second-rate vaccines and then failed to get them into the arms of many of the oldest and most vulnerable people, the Chinese government is now almost certainly facing a big rise in deaths. Omicron may be milder than delta, but it can still kill the old and ill – as we have seen in Hong Kong, where the Covid death rate, per capita, has already risen to almost twice the level Britain saw at its peak.
Might the same fate be about to befall China? It’s a horrendous prospect: if its Covid death-rate ends up at even a third of the European average it would amount to about a million souls, up from just 4,600 now. That’s why western governments should be ready to share the lessons we have learned from the past two years to save as many Chinese lives as possible. Let’s also offer millions of doses of vaccines as fast as we can.
Two years ago, China’s lockdown strategy was being held up as the model to follow by scientists who toured BBC studios giving interviews without serious challenge. We heard plenty from Sage members like Professor Susan Michie and Professor Neil Ferguson. Dr Michie, a card-carrying member of the Communist party of Britain, wrote early in the pandemic that: ‘China has a socialist collective system (whatever criticisms people may have), not an individualistic, consumer-oriented, profit-driven society badly damaged by 20 years of failed neo-liberal economic policies.’ When not attending zero-Covid rallies as a keynote speaker, Dr Michie officially advised the government on ‘behavioural compliance’ – a policy that turned out to be all stick and no carrot.
Prof Ferguson later said that the ‘effective policy’ in China – locking down entire communities in their homes – opened his eyes. ‘It’s a communist one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could. If China had not done it, the year would have been very different.’ We also saw Beijing-style agitprop used by the UK government with Sage advising that: ‘The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.’ The fear campaign began.
Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet and recipient of a Friendship Award from the Chinese government, went on Chinese television early in the pandemic to say: ‘I think we have a great deal to thank China for, about the way that it handled the outbreak.’ Chinese state TV then posted his interview as an advertisement on Facebook. It bought a lot of ads on Facebook in March 2020, which ran with no disclaimers.
Then there’s the World Health Organisation. On 24 February 2020 it told the world that: ‘China’s uncompromising and rigorous use of non-pharmaceutical measures [i.e. lockdown] to contain transmission of the Covid-19 virus in multiple settings provides vital lessons for the global response.’ Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, had visited China in January 2020 and congratulated the regime in even more fulsome terms: ‘In many ways, China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response. It’s not an exaggeration.’
What does he say now that we know the Chinese government was punishing those who spoke about the disease and ordering scientists to publish nothing without state approval? Those who were quick to praise China’s strategy at the time seem in no rush to revisit the lockdown logic that they pushed as absolute truth at the time.
And what about those who praised China’s supposed openness? Peter Daszak, a British-born US virologist, orchestrated a letter to the Lancet in February 2020 signed by Sir Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust. ‘We have watched as the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China, in particular, have worked diligently and effectively to rapidly identify the pathogen behind this outbreak, put in place significant measures to reduce its impact and share their results transparently with the global health community. This effort has been remarkable.’
What does Sir Jeremy have to say now, given that we know Wuhan scientists had in fact changed the name of the most closely related virus, resulting in a two-month delay before anybody in the West realised that it had come from a bat at a site where three people had died of a mysterious pneumonia eight years before? Transparency?
When Britain locked down, most people – myself included – were supportive, thinking we’d flatten the curve and stop the NHS from being overwhelmed. But as Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University argues in his book The Year the World Went Mad, it is now clear that locking down entire populations failed to eliminate the virus quickly. Once China had been negligent enough to allow it to travel to the rest of the world, elimination was impossible. Other strategies were necessary.
The academics who praised China at the start would argue that they did so because lessons needed to be learned fast. The same is true now, which is why their silence matters. We know that in the crucial early weeks, the Chinese government refused to listen to alarm bells rung by medics in Wuhan. Until 20 January 2020 it insisted that the disease could only be caught from animals, even as healthcare workers were catching it from patients. It allowed a banquet for 40,000 families to go ahead in Wuhan on 18 January, missing the chance to eliminate the virus.
If the virus returns to China in a more transmissible form, the innocent citizens of that country will deserve our help and sympathy. Their rulers less so. One thing is for sure: there will be no public inquiry in China.
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Matt Ridley’s latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, is now available—in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.