China looks like it has gone from COVID-zero to COVID disaster in only a few weeks.
After three years of controlling the disease with draconian lockdowns and border closures, the Chinese Communist Party suddenly decided last month to abandon all controls and let the disease rip.
China is downplaying the scale of the problem, but the epidemic has almost certainly swept across the country and already infected hundreds of millions of people.
It seems China has failed to prepare for this 180-degree turn.
Before opening up, China should have stockpiled treatments such as Paxlovid and protected a much higher percentage of its old and vulnerable people with effective Western vaccines.
Because of these failures, however, there are signs that China’s health system is struggling to cope.
A model produced by The Economist newspaper predicts 1.5 million people will die in the next few months.
While this is a tragedy, it is largely an issue for China to grapple with and there is a risk that other countries will overreact.
Several including Japan, India, Italy and the United States have announced they will require travellers from China to have negative COVID-19 tests.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention justified the rule by saying it wanted to “slow the spread” of the disease.
But it is hard to understand the scientific basis for reintroducing quarantine rules in countries where the epidemic is already well established.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has made the right call by deciding not to impose new restrictions at this stage.
While a very high share of the arrivals from China will have COVID-19, Australia is no longer trying to stop the spread of the disease here and is instead “living with COVID”.
Health officials are relying on our high vaccination rates and natural immunity after having had the disease to protect the population.
Australia officially records about 12,000 COVID-19 cases a day and the real number is likely much higher. A few thousand arrivals from China will make almost no difference.
Arrivals from China should, of course, follow NSW government health advice, which is to take basic precautions if they start to show symptoms, wearing a mask on public transport and doing a RAT before visiting people at higher risk of serious illness.
But there is no more reason to block them than anyone who has COVID-19.
Italian health officials have justified the new testing requirements by saying that they want to monitor for dangerous new variants coming from China.
China has fuelled these concerns about new variants by failing to share accurate data on its epidemic.
But there is no reason to believe the variants in China are worse than new variants such as CH.1.1, which was recently detected in India.
Australia and other countries should of course monitor for new variants by careful screening of any cases. But if the past three years have shown anything it is that half-hearted measures such as requiring Chinese citizens to take a COVID-19 test before arrival will not be enough to stop new variants reaching Australia.
While the new testing requirements overseas will do little good from a health perspective, they could have unfortunate political consequences by distracting attention from the Chinese government’s failings and alienating the Chinese people.
Some of them will question for example why the US, which has an appalling record in controlling the disease, is pointing the finger at China.
Australia must, of course, monitor closely, but the current situation in China does not require a special response here, except to express sympathy for the suffering of the Chinese people.
Source : The Age