China Calls WHO's Criticism of Zero-COVID Policy 'Irresponsible'

China, a loyal defender of the World Health Organization throughout the pandemic, made a veiled attack on its director-general this week after he publicly advised against Beijing's zero-COVID policy.

WHO's chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he had told Chinese health experts that the country's zero-tolerance approach to the virus wasn't sustainable. His translated remarks were censored on China's major social media sites, Weibo and WeChat, shortly after they were posted by verified UN accounts.

"As we all know, the virus is evolving, changing its behaviors, becoming more transmissible. With that changing behavior, changing your measures will be very important," Tedros said in Geneva on Tuesday. "When we talk about the zero-COVID strategy, we don't think that is sustainable, considering the behavior of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which has defended the stringent containment measures used to suppress outbreaks of the Omicron strain in major cities, most notably Shanghai, was asked to respond on Wednesday.

"We hope relevant people will look at China's COVID policy in an objective and rational light, learn more about the facts, and refrain from making irresponsible remarks," said Zhao Lijian, one of the ministry's three spokespeople.

"The Chinese government's COVID-19 policy can stand the test of history. Our science-based prevention and control measures have been proven to be effective. China is one of the countries with the most successful COVID-19 response in the world. This is a fact witnessed by the international community," he said.

Policy for China

"I'm convinced that the dynamic zero-COVID policy suits China best," the official said.

The central government's zero-COVID playbook has reduced the infection rate in Shanghai, but the success has come at an enormous social and economic cost. The better part of 25 million residents continues to be locked down for six weeks in China's most populous city, which is also the world's busiest shipping port.

The Chinese leadership so far appears to be weathering the tide of public grievances, which have ranged from dissatisfaction over a lack of support for those ordered to isolate in their apartments, to the sweeping nature of public health rules by which people are being forced into poorly equipped centralized quarantine facilities.

With COVID having returned to communities in Beijing over the past month, the Chinese capital is emulating some of Shanghai's measures, but still hoping to avoid the city's widely reported suffering.

From the WHO's perspective, it would seem impractical to try to stop Omicron's spread, while the availability of vaccines, coupled with the knowledge that the variant is milder, means China doesn't need to.

"Especially when we have now a good knowledge, understanding of the virus, and when we have good tools to use, transiting into another strategy will be very important," Tedros said.

"We have discussed about this issue with Chinese experts. We indicated that the approach will not be sustainable. Considering the behavior of the virus, I think a shift will be very important," he said.

China's censorship of Tedros' comments are a sign that they strayed from Beijing's official line on combating COVID, a strategy that has come with a whole-of-government political campaign, stemming from the very top of the Chinese Communist Party leadership.

But this was not always the case. For two years, Tedros earned high praise in China for commending the country's response to the virus. His remarks this week were not dismissive of Beijing's record. Rather, they contained advice about a suitable exit strategy.

At a press event in May 2020, China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, told reporters that Tedros had "the full confidence of the international community." At the time, the WHO chief faced criticism from some corners of the West, including former President Donald Trump, who called him a "puppet of China."

"Since the start of the outbreak, the WHO, under the leadership of Dr. Tedros, has followed science and given timely and professional advice at every turn. It has done a good job and performed its mandate," Wang said at the time.

"What we're seeing is this: those countries that heeded and followed WHO advice are more successful in bringing the virus under control, while those that ignored or rejected its advice are paying a heavy price," said the senior diplomat.

Among China's stated concerns is a vulnerable elderly population. On Wednesday, spokesperson Zhao cited a recent study by Chinese scientists in Nature Medicine, which predict up to 1.55 million deaths if the country were to immediately move away from zero COVID.

The paper recommends "filling the vaccination gap among the elderly" in order to reduce potential hospital admissions, ICU admissions and deaths from the virus. Zhao said China had already "done a good job of vaccinating the elderly."

China Says Tedros Remarks on COVID 'Irresponsible'
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, on February 18, 2022. The Chinese Foreign Ministry labeled Tedros’ remarks “irresponsible” after the WHO chief said China’s zero-COVID strategy was “not sustainable.” JOHANNA GERON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images