If Mandates Fail, What Will Politicians Do for an Encore?

The resort to “mandatory” measures by many governments around the world is, on the one hand, regarded as a power grab by publics who have seen once supposedly sacrosanct “rights” disappear one after the other, but it is also a sign of growing desperation among leaders who are no longer confident they can eradicate covid and return to “normal.” They are compensating for their powerlessness over nature by intensifying their power over men. The idea, born of frustration with the partial failure of previous and much-touted efforts, is that with enough control, the march to normalcy can be resumed.

However, the idea that severity was the key to pandemic control received a psychological blow when the Delta variant spread in China. “BEIJING — China suspended flights and trains, canceled professional basketball league games and announced mass coronavirus testing in Wuhan … as widening outbreaks of the delta variant reached the city where the disease was first detected in late 2019.” The BBC says:

In response, China has fallen back on familiar methods. Millions have been tested, sometimes more than once. Cities have gone into lockdown, while transport links in some areas have been cut.

It’s what experts call a zero-tolerance or elimination strategy, seen not just in China but also other places such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

But the astonishing speed of Delta’s spread has also prompted questions about whether the approach is truly sustainable in China, in the face of a more transmissible Covid variant.

China was once reassuring proof that enough coercion could do anything, and Beijing’s travails have shaken many a pundit’s touching fait in autocracy. The fear in other capitals must be that if the ruthless hand of Chinese Communism proves insufficient against the virus, how should they succeed? The Sydney Morning Herald writes: “The Delta variant is challenging China’s costly strategy of isolating cities, prompting warnings that Chinese leaders who were confident they could keep the coronavirus out of the country need a less disruptive approach.”

That “zero tolerance” strategy of quarantining every case and trying to block new infections from abroad helped to contain last year’s outbreak and has kept China largely virus-free. But its impact on work and life for millions of people is prompting warnings that China needs to learn to control the virus without repeatedly shutting down the economy and society.