China slams WHO chief as ‘irresponsible’ for criticizing COVID policy

China slams WHO chief as irresponsible for criticizing COVID policy

China pushed back Wednesday at what it called “irresponsible” comments by the World Health Organization chief, who described the country’s hardline “zero COVID” policy as “not sustainable.”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended the controversial strategy that has placed harsh restrictions on hundreds of millions of people across many cities in China.

“We hope that relevant people can view China’s policy of epidemic prevention and control objectively and rationally, get more knowledge about the facts and refrain from making irresponsible remarks,” Zhao said at a press briefing in response to the criticism.

“The Chinese government’s policy of epidemic prevention and control can stand the test of history, and our prevention and control measures are scientific and effective. China is one of the most successful countries in epidemic prevention and control in the world, which is obvious to all of the international community,” Zhao continued.

In rare public comments on a government’s policies, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday it was time for China to change its approach to the outbreak.

“When we talk about the ‘zero-COVID,’ we don’t think that it’s sustainable, considering the behavior of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future,” Tedros said.

Tedros was joined by Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, who said all pandemic control actions should “show due respect to individual and human rights.”

Countries need to “balance the control measures, the impact on society, the impact on the economy. That is not always an easy calibration to make,” Ryan said.

Ghebreyesus said Tuesday it was time for China to change its approach to the outbreak.
REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

The WHO officials’ comments were not covered in China’s state media and were censored on social media.

China’s leaders last week threatened action against critics of the policy, which authorities say “puts life first.”

The policies aimed at eradicating the virus in China have been seen most dramatically in Shanghai, where frustrated people were seen in viral videos screaming from windows of their high-rise apartments last month.

China COVID lockdown
China has employed a “brutal” lockdown to stop the spread of the virus.
AP Photo/Andy Wong
China lockdown
Viral videos show residents screaming from their windows.
AP Photo/Andy Wong
China COVID lockdown
Residents have complained about lost income and difficulty sourcing food.

Residents prohibited by the state from leaving their homes have complained about lost income, difficulties sourcing food, poor access to healthcare and unsanitary quarantine conditions.

The daily number of new cases in Shanghai reported Wednesday had fallen to less than 1,500, down from a peak of 26,000 in mid-April. Seven more COVID-19-related deaths were reported, raising the toll from the outbreak to 560.

China COVID lockdown
New cases of COVID have dropped in the Chinese capital.
AP Photo/Andy Wong

Officials in Shanghai, now in its sixth week under a sweeping lockdown, said Wednesday that half the city, which is home to more than 26 million people, had achieved “zero COVID” status, but movement restrictions would remain in place.

More than 2 million people in the city remained confined to their apartment complexes.

“The risk of a rebound remains,” warned Zhao Dandan, deputy director of Shanghai’s health commission.

China’s uncompromising approach stands in contrast to most other parts of the world, including the US, where governments have chosen to live with the virus and eased restrictions.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said during an interview on CNBC Wednesday that China has managed to rein in the infection rate in Shanghai only by implementing “brutal measures.”

“I don’t see a way out for China right now,” he said. “I think it’s a whole different ball game with Omicron. It’s going to be very hard to adopt a zero COVID policy with such a contagious variant.”

Gottlieb added that China was “vulnerable” because it has not rolled out a mass vaccination campaign, or introduced booster shots or therapeutics to curb infection rates, instead choosing to rely on mass lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus.

China’s official death count since the virus first emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019 is just over 5,000, far below the nearly 1 million deaths in the US.

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