China can’t look to Singapore for a way to live with Covid-19, health economist says

Singapore’s “experiment” to live with the coronavirus – and its subsequent spike in infections – might not be a useful model for China as it considers whether to reopen its borders, a Chinese health researcher has said.

“This safety net protecting the health of 1.4 billion people did not come easily. We can’t let it go just like that,” Li Ling, from Peking University’s National School of Development, was quoted as saying by mainland news website on Wednesday.

China has adopted a zero-tolerance strategy to combat the coronavirus, enforcing swift and sweeping lockdowns coupled with repeated mass testing of entire communities whenever clusters of cases emerge.

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More than 80 per cent of Singapore’s population is vaccinated. Photo: Bloomberg

However, Singapore, where 83 per cent of the population is vaccinated, lifted gathering restrictions in August, allowing its citizens to eat in at restaurants and more employees to work in the office, as part of its blueprint for Covid-19 to become endemic in the country.

Restrictions were reimposed in late September after cases surged and hospitals came under pressure. The restrictions, originally set to expire on Monday, will continue until November 21, Singaporean officials said on Wednesday after a record 3,994 cases were reported on Tuesday.

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Li said Singapore’s strategy had failed to contain the number of cases and if similar conditions occurred in China, a country of 1.4 billion, “it would not be just a matter of 3,000 daily new cases”.

The key to China reopening was whether infections and new variants were under control in other countries.

“As long as one country cannot control the virus, no country can eliminate the threat of infection,” she said.

She also said there was less economic pressure for China to open up.

“With the ‘dual circulation strategy’, the Chinese economy has recovered steadily,” Li said, referring to the central government’s attempt to boost the economy through domestic consumption and demand.

“Now, it is less urgent for China to ‘reopen the doors’ than it is for Singapore. China should put the people’s health first.”

Singapore’s role as a smaller international financial hub also meant it was more important for the city state to open its borders to the world, Li said.

There has been little public sign of support in China for a Singapore-style approach.

Prominent Chinese virologist Zhang Wenhong suggested in July that every country had to find a way to live with the virus because data showed that it would continue to spread despite widespread vaccination.

But in a thinly veiled criticism, former health minister Gao Qiang said it was contradictory for certain experts in China to highlight the infectiousness of the Delta variant of the coronavirus yet advise the nation about coexistence with it.

Nevertheless there are signs that opening up the country might be in sight, with Zhong Nanshan, a leading respiratory diseases expert, and Gao Fu, chief of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, both suggesting an overall vaccination rate of at least 85 per cent and a lower death rate could be the conditions of reopening. As of mid-September, about 78 per cent of the population had been fully vaccinated.

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Despite the use of QR health codes to restrict the movements of people in China, the country has continued to have sporadic outbreaks of Covid-19, with the latest series of cases spread across a bigger geographical area.

Cases have been reported in the last few days in the provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi and Guizhou, as well as the Ningxia Hui and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions, and even the nation’s capital Beijing.

While authorities have yet to determine how the first reported patients were infected, the nine community symptomatic cases reported on Tuesday and 17 on Wednesday are part of a cluster that has a specific chain of transmission.

A holidaying couple from Shanghai were the first reported cases of Covid-19 in the latest outbreak. They flew on October 9 from Shanghai to Zhangye in Gansu province in northwest China, with a stopover in Xian, Shaanxi province.

The retirees then went on a road trip in Gansu and Inner Mongolia, according to the Shaanxi health commission.

They tested negative before they boarded their flight from Shanghai and again before they flew from Jiayuguan in Gansu to Xian. They later tested positive.

The couple were in close contact with six others on their road trip who later tested positive.

Another man, surnamed Ai, rented two cars with the couple was also infected. After spending time with the couple, Ai took a train from Jiayuguan to Beijing, with another person in the compartment becoming infected.

Five people who worked at an Inner Mongolian restaurant that the couple visited were also tested positive.

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