April 26, 2022
NEW DELHI – The pandemic news coming out of China over the past month has been grim, with Covid spreading widely despite Xi Jinping’s efforts to contain the virus. Many of China’s population do not have immunity against the coronavirus. To lessen the chances of additional Covid variants and to limit further supply chain disruptions, President Joe Biden should give Xi mRNA vaccines in sufficient quantity to buy enough time until China acquires enough mRNA vaccines to meet its needs.
To date, three people have died in Shanghai as China is battling the spread of Covid with over 350,000 infections since late March. While last week brought a slight easing of restrictions, much of the past four weeks have seen Shanghai’s 25 million residents being subjected to strict lockdowns without adequate food delivery services.
Several other Chinese cities are under similar restrictions, and it is estimated that there are currently over 400 million people under strict pandemic protocols at present.
Compounding the hardships, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have been forced into government quarantine centres with grimy, fetid conditions.
Yet, there is doubt if Xi Jinping’s zero Covid strategy is working given the highly transmissible nature of the omicron variant and due to the fact that Chinese vaccines have not been as effective as their Western counterparts.
Xi has staked his reputation on this zero Covid approach and has thus far resisted calls to change tactics. Adopting another course of action to fight the pandemic would contradict China’s claims that its political system is more effective – indeed superior – than those of the West.
Considerable public anger amassed on social media against the health officials and police who are enforcing Xi’s zero Covid approaches with brutal measures.
The lockdowns have jeopardized China’s economic recovery by slowing its manufacturing sector and bottling up trade activity at its ports. This has only worsened supply chain tensions and added to worldwide inflationary pressures.
All of Xi’s efforts appear to be focused on doing whatever is necessary to prevent the spread of Covid in the run-up to this fall’s Community Party Congress at which time he is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party, permitting him to rule for life. Allowing for the coronavirus to go sideways before then would reflect poorly on Xi as the Party Congress approaches.
Another reason for the strict Covid protocols is the reality that the Chinese health system does not have the infrastructure to handle a massive outbreak of Covid. The spotty hospital network suffers from under-investment and simply does not have enough beds and resources to care for large surges of cases. Additionally, many senior citizens are not vaccinated. Adding to worries, just over half of China’s population has been boosted and less than 50 per cent of citizens over 70 years of age have received the third dose. Furthermore, while Xi’s zero Covid approaches of shutting off the country from international travel and quarantining entire cities had its initial successes during earlier stages of the pandemic, omicron’s highly transmissible nature has thus far proven too elusive to contain. This reality, when coupled with the hard truth that Chinese vaccines have failed to prevent the widespread transmission of the disease, means that large segments of China’s population have limited immunity from Covid. More worryingly, a failure to make a dent in transmissions among China’s vast population raises the risk of other Covid variants developing that could prolong or worsen the pandemic.
During this challenging period when China’s population has little Covid immunity acquired through infection and suffers from inadequate protection from indigenous Chinese jabs, Biden should provide Xi with mRNA vaccines until other mRNA doses become available in the country. (According to reports, one mRNA is being produced in China and another is being acquired from a foreign country.)
mRNA vaccines can play a role in lessening omicron’s spread, which in turn can help alleviate lockdown-related suffering and restart China’s economy. Such measures can also limit disruptions to manufacturing and trade that are disrupting supply chains and contributing to worldwide inflationary pressures.
Amid this politically sensitive time for Xi, he may refuse such an offer by Biden so as not to acknowledge that his zero Covid approaches have failed.
Xi may also seek to avoid any appearance of inferiority to the American system which he has criticized as being in inevitable decline. It would also be fanciful thinking to assume that the successful U.S. to China mRNA vaccine transfer would help lower distrust between the two rivals. Significant challenges remain between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, Ukraine, the South China Sea, Covid-19 origins investigations, Uighur persecution and trade, to name a few issues.
Yet, there is precedent for geopolitical rivals to cooperate on pandemic response. In the 1950s, the U.S. and Soviet Union worked together to produce a new oral polio vaccine, and both powers collaborated in the 1960s on smallpox eradication.
Providing China with mRNA vaccines isn’t only the right thing to do. It may just help avert new Covid variants and limit further damage to the global economy.
(The writer is Associate Clinical Professor at Claremont Graduate University. )