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Opinion

Disrupted

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Apple admitted the company could lose billions of dollars this year. The main culprit is supply chain disruptions due to extensive lockdowns imposed in China.

Beijing has not been very forthcoming about the extent its economy is affected by the lockdowns. Most analysts, however, believe the vast economic losses could have severe global implications.

About 27 major Chinese cities are under some form of lockdown due to spikes in COVID-19 infections. Shanghai, a city of 25 million (twice the size of the NCR), has been under severe mobility restrictions for weeks now. Those restrictions prevent factories from operating. Entire neighborhoods are entirely dependent on food aid supplied by the government.

A lockdown of Beijing, with a population of over 20 million, seems in the works. The past week, some neighborhoods have been isolated. Panic buying has happened.

According to a CNN report, 27 major Chinese cities are under some form of lockdown, affecting about 165 million people. The lockdowns span 14 provinces from the far north to the south. Apart from Shanghai and Beijing (involving several districts), the other major cities under some form of mobility restriction are: Hangzhou (12.2 million), Suzhou (12.7 million) and Harbin (9.5 million).

A complete lockdown of Beijing, the political and administrative center, will be an embarrassment for Xi Jinping. But it will be the inevitable consequence of China’s stubborn insistence on a zero-COVID strategy. Xi is said to be the main advocate of this costly strategy.

This strategy involves locking down communities, sealing borders, conducting massive testing and forcible isolation of the infected. In Shanghai, some residents report getting tested more than once a day. The police forcibly haul off to isolation centers those found positive for the virus. Whole city districts are fenced in.

International health experts are critical of this costly strategy. The highly contagious Omicron variant (and its sub-variants), experts point out, spread more quickly than any government can impose mobility restrictions. The whole effort is like pushing a rock up a hill.

Beijing, however, is stubbornly sticking by its dogmatic zero-COVID strategy. They are doing so even in the face of mounting evidence the strategy might be futile.

The Omicron variant, we know from our own bout with it, is more transmissible but less lethal. A lot more can get infected as we saw in our February spike, although hospitalization is fewer. Many infected people are asymptomatic or have such mild symptoms they simply go about their daily activities and do not report their cases to health authorities. Even when our spike was at it worst, it is likely infections were underreported.

Today, we have a vaccination rate that is comparable to the US. Our problem is that fewer and fewer report for vaccination as infections subside. Because of this, we will likely be donating some of our vaccine supplies threatened with expiration. Vaccination will pick up in the event another surge happens, as our health authorities anticipate.

China has a high vaccination rate – or at least reports high rates. The population can well afford to roll with the surges, beefing up immunity in the process.

Beijing could not imagine doing that. Here is a regime so obsessed with control, it could not comprehend allowing infections to freely take their course. This is the only reason there could possibly be for the dogmatic insistence on stamping out the virus by the harshest methods.

We were once like that, insisting on hard lockdowns to contain infections. We have learned as the pandemic progressed. We learned from the experience of other countries that were less obsessive in their approach to the virus.

Surges happen and then they pass. When the February surge happened here, we had more infections daily than at any previous point during this pandemic. But we did not impose the same harsh methods that we did earlier.

One of our scientists drew flak for saying the Omicron variant was heaven sent. It was contagious but more benign. It paved the way to building wider immunity. It hastens the virus transforming into something more endemic. It opens the door to transitioning to the new normal.

From our experience with the February surge, he might have a point. We went through that surge without our hospitals filling up.

Indonesian health authorities were surprised when they found out last year that a large majority of their population had antibodies for the COVID-19 virus. This meant that infections quietly spread but our natural defense systems kicked in and fought back.

The WHO warned that another surge could happen in the Philippines in the month of May. Indeed, a slight increase in infections was monitored the past week. But high vaccination rates and naturally generated antibodies should be able to fight this back.

This time around, there is less panic about the possibility of another surge. We are simply pushing ahead with the vaccination program despite the diminishing returns. Some communities are bringing the vaccines to the homes of the more vulnerable.

When the social and economic toll of severe and widespread lockdowns become evident in China, her government might step back a little. The opportunity costs of the severe restrictions imposed could soon run into the trillions of dollars. Business losses and social distress have a way of knocking some sense into governments.

It is a political mindset more than epidemiology that guides China’s harsh response to current surge in infections. But that political mindset is dysfunctional as the virus has mutated to its more contagious but also more benign forms.

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