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No Easy Exit from Zero-COVID

With protests erupting across China, the government is under pressure to exit from its costly zero-COVID strategy. But the rollback of restrictions is likely to be carried out in a gradual, controlled manner, much like China’s reform and opening up of four decades ago.

HONG KONG – Following a deadly fire in a residential building in China’s Xinjiang region – which many blame on COVID-19 lockdowns – Chinese protesters have taken to the streets to demand an end to stringent pandemic restrictions. Even before the protests erupted, there were signs that President Xi Jinping’s administration was preparing to roll back the costly zero-COVID policy, though the exact timeline remains uncertain. But this process will be more complicated than many seem to realize.

China’s exit from zero-COVID clearly carries public-health risks that must be managed, especially given low vaccination rates among the elderly. Less noticed, however, are the operational challenges this process raises.

As China has learned from Hong Kong’s painful experience, a wave of infections in a densely populated area can create a sudden surge in demand for medical resources, paralyzing the public-health system. If the government fails to find a way to meet that demand quickly, the death toll – especially among the elderly – could soar.