Covid-19 may be surging in China, but does the world need to panic?

Some countries are imposing travel restrictions, when they have less disruptive means to control infection

Passengers of a flight from China wait in a line for checking their Covid-19 vaccination documents in a Paris airport on New Year's Day. AFP
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When the Australian cricket team lined up for the national anthems prior to the final Test match of their series against South Africa in Sydney on Wednesday, TV viewers were quick to spot something unusual was going on.

While the majority of the players linked arms in solidarity for the anthems, Matt Renshaw, who had been recalled to the side after a years-long absence from the Australian team, stood a short distance away from his teammates. It was later reported that Renshaw had reportedly feeling unwell before the start of play and subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.

According to matchday protocols, he was required to socially distance from his teammates and so spent much of the first and second day of play sitting a few metres apart from the team dugout. Late in the day’s play on Thursday, Renshaw sat on a white plastic chair still waiting to bat. With Australia firmly in control of the first phase of the game, Renshaw cut a peripheral figure in every sense of the word. When he eventually got called to the middle, rain stopped play a few minutes later.

There were plenty of hot-takes on social media as the anthems played and for hours afterwards. Twitter was abuzz, to use the lingua franca, with those who supported and those who opposed the decision to let him carry on, almost three years after Covid-19 first swept into our lives.

“That’s frankly bizarre,” said one. “Everyone is vaccinated, relaxed and life goes on,” said another. “Very different to 12 months ago,” a third said. If you were so minded, you could have doom-scrolled your way through many more of the same and opposing views on whether he should have been wearing a mask or not.

Each one of those reactions shows how the pandemic is and was a crisis of the individual as well as being a vast public health event that once required unprecedented levels of government intervention. Now that it has largely passed, every one of us has been left with a finely calibrated sense of risk, which confronts us each time Covid-19 moves back into view.

While some of the headlines may sound alarm bells, we should do our utmost to mute the noise

Such occurrences are also a sharp reminder of the realities of what “living with Covid” are. Generally this means that infections will happen, but that our knowledge of Covid-19 and our abilities to tackle the virus are so well-developed that we should be able to sufficiently reduce risk and move confidently forward. The complexities of the early phase of the pandemic, when rules and regulations changed rapidly and there were no available vaccines, have been replaced by sensible guidance. Or have they?

This week, we also saw the other side to the same coin, with restrictions being placed upon travellers from China by several countries, including Australia, the US and the UK, among others.

These new protocols involve a requirement for passengers to be able to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken less than two days before departure. In some cases, that requirement extends to passengers as young as two years old being tested before leaving China.

Travel has been restricted from China for the past three years, but strict lockdowns and zero-Covid policies have recently been eased and many people are expected to take trips as the Chinese New Year approaches.

A Chinese state newspaper described the measures as discriminatory, unfounded and tantamount to an attack on the country’s system.

International Air Transport Association director general Willie Walsh said in a statement that the requirement to test travellers from China was a “knee-jerk” reaction before adding that “putting barriers in the way of travel made no difference to the peak spread of infections”, while referencing data gathered during the Omicron wave last year.

He said the world had the “tools to manage Covid-19 without resorting to ineffective measures that cut off international connectivity, damage economies and destroy jobs".

It’s hard to disagree with any of Mr Walsh’s assessments.

One of the key lessons of the pandemic has been that closing borders and restricting movement on a large scale too often creates more problems than it solves. The looming mental health crisis caused by the lagging effects of the pandemic and the enforced bouts of isolation and lockdown that often ensued continue to cast a long shadow over the 2020s, just as the broader economic implications do.

Separately, pre-flight tests provide only a baseline of whether someone has Covid-19 or not. All our acquired knowledge of incubation periods should teach us that testing is useful, but only to a point and testing before departure is an exercise in box-ticking rather than genuine infection control. We should only now be testing when someone feels unwell and presents with Covid-19 symptoms.

Finally, that same bank of Covid-19 knowledge acquired since the earliest days of 2020 provides a vast reserve to call upon with regards to mitigation, immunity, vaccination and treatment.

While some of the headlines around the latest variant “sweeping through the US” or the level of infections in Shanghai may sound alarm bells, we should do our utmost to mute the noise. Each new mutation of the virus may yet prove to be more contagious than the last one, but it may also prove less dangerous and more treatable.

We should be collapsing barriers rather than imposing them.

Published: January 06, 2023, 7:00 AM