China’s zero-Covid strategy towards the coronavirus pandemic is unsustainable, according to the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in comments that were swiftly censored on Chinese social media.
Director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said increased knowledge about the virus and better tools to combat it also suggested it was time for a change of strategy.
“We don’t think that it is sustainable considering the behaviour of the virus and what we now anticipate in the future,” he told a media briefing. “We have discussed this issue with Chinese experts. And we indicated that the approach will not be sustainable… I think a shift would be very important.”
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian defended the country’s anti-pandemic measures and called Tedros’s comments “irresponsible”.
Tedros’s comments come after China’s leaders have repeated their resolve to battle the virus with tough measures as part of their zero-Covid strategy.
Officials have threatened action against critics at home even as strict and prolonged lockdowns exact a heavy toll on the world’s second-largest economy.
WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said the impact of a “zero-Covid” strategy on human rights also needs to be taken into consideration.
“We have always said as WHO that we need to balance the control measures against the impact they have on society, the impact they have on the economy, and that’s not always an easy calibration,” Ryan said.
He noted that China has registered 15,000 deaths since the virus first emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019 – a relatively low number compared with nearly 1 million in the US, more than 664,000 in Brazil and at least 524,000 in India.
With that in mind, it is understandable, Ryan said, that the world’s most populous country would want to take tough measures to curb coronavirus contagion as part of its zero-Covid strategy .
China’s policy has drawn criticism ranging from scientists to its own citizens, leading to a cycle of lockdowns of many millions of people, anguish and anger.
Most other nations that shared its approach initially have now at least begun a transition to strategies to live with the virus.
- Reuters, with additional editing by George Russell
This article was updated on May 11, 2022 to include comments by China’s foreign ministry and information that Chinese censors deleted the WHO comments from domestic social media.