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Can China's Zero Tolerance Approach To Fighting The Delta Variant Work Forever?


Sudden lockdowns for entire cities, mass testing of millions of people - these are some of the ways that China has kept new coronavirus infections down, sometimes to single digits. But can China's zero tolerance approach contain the delta variant as it spreads across the country? And is it worth the cost? NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Tom is an American businessman, and in 2019, he got a dream job to work on building the China branch of a multinational company. He happily moved his young family to China. Then, the pandemic hit.

TOM: And I think it was Thursday, we canceled dinner plans. And Friday, they told me not to go to work. So Saturday, we had a flight planned to go back to the United States, so we did.

FENG: Tom's company told him to stay in the U.S. and wait out the pandemic.

TOM: And I said, you wait; it's going to be worse. And they didn't believe me. But it ended up getting, you know, shut down.

FENG: Shut down, as in March last year, China sealed off its borders. It's even stopped its own citizens from obtaining new passports to travel. Tom made it back by getting a special letter approved by the mayor of the Chinese city he works in. But they did not give his family permission to enter. He applied again and waited.

TOM: Well, let's just try for one more month. Let's just try for one more month. That - eventually, that breaks. And I'm depressed. The family's depressed. We just want to see each other.

FENG: Most of the people in this story, like Tom, asked us to use only their first names because they do not want to jeopardize their chances of getting back into China. They're among hundreds of thousands of people stuck outside, far from loved ones, their jobs, research laboratories. Within China, antivirus measures are even more strict. The appearance of a single delta case can get an entire city locked down. Traveling from a place with delta cases - that will be three weeks of hotel quarantine in a city like Beijing.

JENNIFER BOUEY: So this has caused some debate in China, whether this containment, zero tolerance policy is feasible.

FENG: That's Dr. Jennifer Bouey, an epidemiologist at the RAND Corporation. She's talking about a debate happening in China right now where some public health experts argue China needs to accept that with variants going around, China cannot simply lock everything down every time. First, there's a question of whether...

BOUEY: Whether, you know, this competing of testing, quarantine is feasible when delta transmits so fast.

FENG: Meaning there is no guarantee you can quarantine people in time before they infect others. China has given out 1.8 billion shots, enough to cover nearly 70% of the population. But it's hesitant to relax its strict policies because there's no data on how effective Chinese vaccines remain over time or how good they are against variants.

BOUEY: So I would assume with delta virus, the efficacy will continue to drop, just like other vaccine. So this can create a problem that the vaccine may not be a strong tool.

FENG: That means people have to stomach the personal cost of multiple lockdowns and travel restrictions triggered when just a single case pops up. With delta, that's now every day.

WAQAS: We are vaccinated. We are ready for quarantine and all the testing, whatever they want. But please, do not disturb our future.

FENG: That's Waqas, a Pakistani student pursuing his Ph.D. in China. Before the pandemic, China was trying to become a global research hub to rival the U.S. It gave promising Ph.D. researchers like Waqas government scholarships to study and work in China. But now he can't get back or finish his doctoral research.

WAQAS: They just need to run the experiment and just send me the results. But unfortunately, my lab mates have packed my experiment table. And the thing on which I spent 10 months is now in the dustbin.

FENG: China's global commercial ties are also taking a hit. International shipping has been seriously snarled up by quarantines at major Chinese ports. Entire factories have to go offline if a region is shut down. Max Lee, who helps head a global job recruiting company, says international candidates do not want to work in China anymore.

MAX LEE: We're definitely going to see a decrease in international talent and personnel. In many cases, they were unable to or they didn't want to travel to China because of the travel restrictions. So, yeah, I'd say there was a considerable impact due to the pandemic.

FENG: So much so that Nick Marro, a macroeconomist with the Economist Intelligence Unit, has shaved off 0.4% from his China growth forecast.

NICK MARRO: The COVID restrictions kind of pushed us to make that call just because we are seeing quite a strict, quite a severe approach to ensuring that the outbreak remains controllable.

FENG: Which means China has chosen to prioritize total virus containment at the expense of its cultural, commercial and intellectual ties to the world.

RORY TRUEX: Just basically, like, the steady flow of people back and forth has completely eroded.

FENG: Rory Truex is an assistant professor of international relations at Princeton University.

TRUEX: Again, I think it's - the simplest thing that's missing is the trust building exercise that comes with human-to-human exchange.

FENG: He argues that international border closures are worsening diplomatic relations.

TRUEX: Now you have people both in the U.S. and China that are sort of able to speculate or pontificate about what's going on on the other side without much firsthand knowledge. And so it just sort of leads us down a path where both parties are assuming the worst about the other.

FENG: And China has given every indication it intends to keep isolating itself for the next year. As for Tom, the businessman, he's planning to relocate temporarily.

TOM: So Monday, in August, my family is moving to Thailand. I'm flying down there with them.

FENG: And for the time being, Tom won't be working from China. But for the first time in more than a year and a half, he and his family will be living together.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.