China Faces ‘Tough’ Zero-COVID Exit, WHO Says

GENEVA (Reuters) – China is facing a “very tough” time as it dismantles its rigid “zero-COVID” policy and allows people to live with the virus, posing challenges preparing hospitals and ensuring people are sufficiently protected, the World Health Organization said.

Beijing abruptly dropped its zero-tolerance stance last week after protests against its often-draconian COVID lockdowns. The shift, welcomed by many inside the country, has also stoked concerns that infections could spike.

Asked about the policy changes, WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris told a Geneva press briefing on Tuesday that China faced a “very tough and difficult time.

“It’s always very difficult for any country coming out of a situation where you’ve had very, very tight controls,” she said, adding that other countries like Australia had experienced this.

“We’ve always said before: don’t go into lockdown too easily and too quickly because it’s really, really hard to come out.”

Among the challenges are ensuring the population is “appropriately vaccinated” and preparing hospitals for both a potential increase in cases and a potential rush of people who may be infected with other illnesses.

“There are many, many things you have to put in place at community level, at hospital level, at national level in order to maintain that transition,” Harris added.

The WHO typically refrains from commenting on individual countries’ policies, although agency Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus did say in May that China’s COVID policies were not sustainable.

WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said earlier this month he was pleased that China was adjusting its strategy and urged it to continue increasing its vaccination coverage.

Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, said many people in China were vaccinated too long ago to have adequate protection.

“It’s effectively lost the benefits of its vaccination campaign. Not entirely but largely,” he told Reuters. “And, so it’s in a really difficult position.”

(Reporting by Emma Farge; additional reporting by Natalie Grover in London; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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