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China needs a Covid target more than a GDP target

After an unprecedented wave of protests against harsh lockdowns, Chinese officials appear to be preparing citizens to live with Covid-19. Beijing has plenty of economic goals, quotas and deadlines but so far has published no roadmap for transitioning away from containment to management.

On Wednesday Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees pandemic control, began downplaying the virus, referring to the “weakening pathogenicity” of the Omicron strain and noting higher vaccination rates. The country faces “new situations and new tasks,” she said. State media is blaming overzealous municipal officials for excessive lockdowns; they in turn have abruptly eased movement curbs.

That prompted a second stock market relief rally. Stocks popped in mid-November when the government signaled it would relax draconian measures under President Xi Jinping’s “dynamic zero-Covid” policy. In reality the opposite happened. Frustration over this reversal drove people onto the streets.

Thus everyone will be wary of more waffling. The onus is on Beijing to be particularly transparent about its strategy, so people and businesses can start planning and investing. Vaccine makers like Pfizer need to know whether China will finally approve foreign mRNA jabs; those eying the swathe of upcoming initial public offerings by test-kit makers want to know how many more of them the government is going to buy.

Officials will do well to avoid imitating Hong Kong, where Covid deaths per-capita set world records after Omicron hit. The city’s communications strategy was a mess, prompting an exodus of wealth and talent.

There are better ways. Singapore telegraphed its plan to lift quarantine and social distancing measures in stages after over 80% of its population was fully vaccinated. Instead of obsessing over infections, it referred to the number of patients in intensive care units to control the pace.

Easing need not be dragged out. Nine out of 10 Chinese are inoculated with two doses, albeit mostly with less effective domestic versions. But only 76% of octogenarians are jabbed at least once, leaving over 8 million at risk. The central government hopes to lift that figure to 90% by January 2023, sources told financial magazine Caixin. That’s good, but what happens after it is achieved? Leaders are due to deliberate next year’s economic plan soon, including the gross domestic product target, but what’s more important right now is mapping the pandemic policy transition, publishing it, and sticking to it.

Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan on Nov. 30 called for further efforts to improve Covid-19 prevention and control measures, urging “optimisation” of testing, treatment and quarantine policies. She also said the latest variants of the disease are less lethal, according to state news agency Xinhua.

China is aiming to increase the vaccination rate for those aged 80 and above, with at least 90% to receive their first shot by end of January, from the current level of 76%, Chinese financial magazine Caixin reported on Dec. 1 citing unnamed sources.
Source: Reuters (Editing by Pete Sweeney and Thomas Shum)

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