China to ease ‘zero-COVID’ policy. What does that mean for most the vulnerable?

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Marcelle Hutchins

An elderly person scans a QR code at a nucleic acid testing site for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Beijing, China November 11, 2022. Photo by REUTERS/Tingshu Wang.

The Chinese government is signaling that it may start to move away from its strict “zero-COVID” policy. China’s senior COVID response official said the country is entering a “new stage and mission” in relation to pandemic controls. Meanwhile, over the past few weeks, the biggest protests since the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square uprisings have roiled the country.

Nearly three years into the pandemic, China still locks down major cities and forces its residents into quarantine centers when they contract COVID. From a disease control perspective, the approach has worked: China has only seen approximately 5,000 deaths compared to countries like the U.S., where more than 1 million have died. But if China moves away from zero-COVID, what does life look like for more than 1 billion people there?

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Chin-Hong says he and his colleagues are increasingly afraid for China as it tries to contain the virus. That’s because the country has relied on only one COVID strategy: a mixture of contact tracing and minimal vaccinations.

“You can't put all of your strategies in one basket. … This is like a forest, a dry forest, and you're just waiting to light that match up,” Chin-Hong says.

He adds that China’s vaccines are arguably less effective than others worldwide and ICU beds are in limited supply. Most vulnerable adults, especially seniors, also aren’t vaccinated due to misinformation.

“You're not only talking about the vast numbers, you're talking about the kind of vaccine you're using,” he says. “China doesn't have waves of natural infection to bolster whatever vaccines are being used in the background.”



  • Dr. Peter Chin-Hong - professor of medicine who specializes in infectious diseases at the University of California San Francisco