It has been three years since the Chinese city of Wuhan became, for rather unfortunate reasons, a global household name. The city’s first cases of what was then the “novel coronavirus” in the final weeks of 2019 set off a pandemic that would very quickly come to change the world.
Since then, most countries have experienced titanic shifts in their way of life, as policymakers spent months trying to readjust their healthcare systems to cope with a health crisis of a kind not seen in a century. There was plenty of trial and error – and significant cost and sacrifice – in search of a “new normal”. But eventually most nations arrived at a place where they could live with repeated waves of the virus, minimise their impact and ease most restrictions (such as lockdowns) for good.
China opted for a different approach, in which right up until this month lockdowns and other strict public health measures had become a regular feature of daily life. There was a clear payoff: “zero Covid”, as the policy is known, undoubtedly saved countless lives. China’s death toll throughout most of the pandemic had been remarkably low.
One lesson from these plague-ridden years, however, has been that such policies cannot be sustained forever. In recent days, Beijing has decided to lift most restrictions – including quarantine measures for those visiting or re-entering China – in quick succession. Predictably, this has resulted in soaring numbers of infections across the country, and sparked fears abroad of China inadvertently exporting this new wave to other countries.
But the world is a different place today than it was in 2019. Three years of tribulations have resulted in unprecedented capabilities in disease surveillance, control and treatment. There are still, of course, major gaps in global pandemic preparedness; vaccines, for instance, are still not widespread in many developing countries. But overall, for Chinese citizens and the rest of the world, there will be more benefit than cost to what Beijing is trying to achieve by moving towards a more sustainable way of life.
China’s re-opening will be a boon to the Chinese economy and, by extension, the world’s, though it must be considered that things may get worse before they get better. Global banking giant HSBC warned this month that the Chinese economy could contract in the first quarter of 2023. In this respect, a new Covid-19 wave in China will not be so different from the waves seen in the past three years in other parts of the world. Businesses will have to deal with worker shortages and logistical issues, and widespread fear of the virus will encourage many consumers to spend less time – and money – outside.
These processes have already kicked into gear, with impacts on the global economy. On Tuesday, shares in two US blue-chip firms, Apple and Tesla, tumbled as the resurgence of Covid-19 in China affected their supply chains. The wider Chinese manufacturing sector, already stifled by the rolling lockdowns of the past year, is likely to experience a delayed recovery until the country reaches a new modus vivendi with the virus.
None of this can come soon enough, however. The past three years have seen the erosion of a global economic order that was not without its flaws, but nonetheless hugely beneficial. The pandemic brought globalisation to a near-standstill, and the war in Ukraine has made things much worse. Trade is sluggish and inflation is high. China’s re-opening will be neither a cure nor an inoculation against further shocks, but it is a critical step to getting the world back on track.