China’s internet censored after WHO chief says zero Covid is unsustainable

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The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) is being censored online after questioning the sustainability of China’s zero-Covid policy.

Censorship on China’s two largest social media platforms, Weibo and WeChat, has targeted comments by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who expressed rare disagreements with Beijing’s policies.

“When we talk about the Zero-Covid strategy, we don’t think it’s sustainable given the current behavior of the virus and what we expect in the future,” Tedros said at a media briefing on Tuesday, referring to the increase in Omicron transmission. .

“We have discussed this issue with Chinese experts and we have stated that the approach will not be sustainable… I think that change will be very important.”

The criticism of Tedros, who has previously been accused of being too close to China during the pandemic, came days after Chinese leader Xi Jinping vowed to double down on his policy and “resolutely fight back” against all critics.

The United Nations’ official press account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo posted Tedron’s comments early Wednesday morning, drawing a wave of mocking comments from Chinese users.

“Strongly oppose any words and actions that distort, question or deny our country’s epidemic prevention and control policies! Fuck the World Health Organization!” said the top answer.

“Should UN verified account be blocked this time?” said another.

By mid-morning, the post was no longer visible on Weibo “due to the author’s privacy settings.” It is unclear under what circumstances the setting was changed.

A Weibo hashtag of Tedros’ name has also been censored, with images of his face removed from the platform, while posts containing his name still appear.

On WeChat, an article from the official UN account containing Tedros’ comments was “prohibited from sharing due to violation of relevant laws and regulations” on Wednesday morning. Videos of Tedros’ speech were also removed from the platform.

Tedros’ comments, while in line with the assessment of most scientists, drew the ire of Beijing, which called them “irresponsible”.

“We hope that relevant people will look at China’s epidemic prevention and control policy objectively and rationally, learn more about the facts, and refrain from making irresponsible statements,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a press briefing on Wednesday.

China’s zero-tolerance approach to sudden lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines has protected most of its population from Covid over the past two years, but amid the rapid spread of Omicron, the lockdowns have become tougher and often fueled growing resentment.

Shanghai, the country’s most populous and cosmopolitan city, has been suffering a six-week lockdown that has sparked public protests, while the capital, Beijing, has closed schools, restaurants and conducted frequent mass testing to prevent the outbreak. Elsewhere, more local governments are implementing rapid lockdowns in response to several cases.

But China’s leadership has insisted on tough measures, saying the holiday will “inevitably lead to large-scale infections, large numbers of serious illnesses and deaths” due to the country’s large population of elderly people and insufficient medical resources.

New modeling, mainly by researchers at Shanghai Fudan University, predicted that China could face more than 1.5 million Omicron deaths if zero Covid measures are lifted without vaccine coverage or access to antiviral treatments.

A peer-reviewed study published Tuesday by the journal Nature Medicine found that an unchecked Omicron wave would overwhelm critical care capacity nationwide and cause 112.2 million symptomatic cases, based on March immunity levels.

The study estimates that if an uncontrolled Omicron outbreak were to occur, China’s national healthcare system would be completely overwhelmed, and demand for the country’s 64,000 ICU beds would outstrip supply by 15.6 times for at least 44 days.

But this scenario could be avoided if the Chinese government focuses on increasing “access to vaccines and antiviral treatments,” according to modeling.

More than 88% of Chinese are fully vaccinated, but immunization is much lower among the elderly. As of March 17, only half of people in China over the age of 80 have been fully vaccinated, and less than 20% of this vulnerable age group has received a booster shot. Unlike most countries, China’s vaccination campaigns did not initially prioritize the elderly.

Since the latest outbreak, Chinese officials have vowed to speed up vaccination among the elderly. But in the locked areas, it is almost impossible to get the vaccine as residents are confined to their homes and only go out for the Covid test.

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