Beijing’s “zero-COVID” policy has drawn worldwide attention and criticism, particularly as evidence suggests that the virus itself started in China. In this article, NGS intern Barney King looks at the detail of the policy, its impact on travellers, how it compares with other countries in Southeast Asia, and what the future might hold.
China’s zero-covid policy
Countries across Southeast Asia have imposed a variety of different travel policies to combat the spread of COVID-19. China’s approach has been one of the strictest worldwide and its zero-COVID policy (preventing any spread of the virus whatsoever) has required extensive restrictions. These include mass lockdowns for single COVID-19 cases (Xi’an city put 13 million residents into lockdown in December after the reporting of 143 cases), an intrusive track-and-trace programme, and a 14-day minimum mandatory government quarantine for all arrivals into the country. This has created a significant barrier to entry for all travellers since the beginning of the pandemic.
Entering mainland China is a strict and multistage process. Visas have not been available for tourists or students since March 2020: they are available for foreign nationals for work purposes, although these still require multiple documents. Both PCR and antibody tests are necessary pre-departure. A rigorous testing system then takes place within the 14- to 21-day quarantine period. The costs of this are the responsibility of the traveller and the amount of time in quarantine varies depending on the city and region. For instance, travellers visiting Shenyang can expect a 28-day centralised quarantine followed by a further 28-day quarantine in their homes. Comparatively, Sichuan only requires a 14-day centralised quarantine, followed by seven days of health monitoring (during which travellers are only permitted to undertake essential activities).
These entry requirements have made China inaccessible for a large number of foreign travellers. In addition, travellers can also expect internal restrictions if moving between different regions and cities. Each area is classified as either high, medium or low risk; moving from a high or medium area anywhere requires yet further quarantines. For example, when moving from Shanghai to Chengdu, after a 14-day centralised quarantine, a further seven-day quarantine or seven days of health monitoring is required.
China’s zero-COVID policy has not changed since the pandemic began. It is a widely supported policy throughout the country as COVID-19 cases and deaths have remained exceptionally low. As a result, the travel policy has seen very little adjustment. The minor adjustments that have been made involved re-evaluating those countries from which travellers can travel, following case spikes in several areas of the world. The visa application process has also been streamlined for vaccinated travellers, by reducing the number of documents required, although this has not impacted other elements of the entry process.
The stringency of China’s travel restrictions contrasts sharply with those of other Southeast Asian countries, many of whom have adopted more lenient policies. Initially, the response in this region of the world involved strict lockdowns (Cambodia was even criticised by human rights groups as its citizens could only leave their homes for specific medical reasons during lockdown, and were not allowed to leave to obtain basic necessities such as food). However, these were gradually relaxed over time. Thailand’s ‘test and go’ travel scheme now allows for the free movement of travellers throughout the country after they have quarantined for one day upon arrival and reported a negative PCR test. A second PCR test is then taken on day five of the visit to ensure COVID-19 hasn’t developed. These are extremely limited time delays when compared to Chinas 14- to 21-day quarantine, and entail much lower costs for travellers.
Thailand’s travel scheme was halted for approximately one month due to Omicron, before resuming shortly afterwards. The Thai government is taking a drastically different approach from China because it is under greater pressure to accept travellers, given that 18% of its GDP usually comes from tourism: during 2020 Thailand only received 6.7 million tourists, and this fell further to approximately 106,000 in 2021, which in turn led to tourism only contributing 6% to national GDP.
Other countries in Southeast Asia are also creating new viable options for international travellers to return to the region. Cambodia, the Philippines and Singapore are no longer enforcing mandatory quarantine, while some countries are creating travel bubbles or corridors where reduced restrictions are in place, including Laos and Vietnam. However, an equal amount are still enforcing strict international travel policies: Japan, for example, has suspended all international travel in response to the Omicron variant; South Korea is also still enforcing strict international entry requirements, and all travellers to South Korea are required to complete a 14-day quarantine.
China’s zero-COVID policy has been exceptionally successful in terms of its primary objective of keeping COVID-19 cases to a minimum. Nonetheless, the repercussions of this approach have been severe for international travellers. The strict restrictions have meant that the opportunities to travel to China have become extremely limited, even for Chinese citizens living abroad, and Beijing has demonstrated that it is willing to tolerate continuous international pressure to reopen in order to maintain low infection rates.
China is unlikely to re-open its borders for the foreseeable future. Its healthcare system is not prepared for sudden surges in COVID-19 cases and subsequent high hospitalisation rates. This is due to government efforts to keep infection rates to a minimum, instead of reinforcing the healthcare system, which has left Chinese medical personnel with little experience of controlling the virus. Therefore, China cannot risk relaxing restrictions even though over 3.10 billion vaccine doses have been administered nationally. A sharp rise in cases would also lead to criticism of the government; when cases rapidly rose at the beginning of the pandemic, hospitals were overwhelmed with patients and the initial death toll included many healthcare workers. This generated fierce criticism of the government, which is highly sensitive to negative public sentiment. This is especially the case in 2022, as Xi Jinping prepares for the annual party congress later this year, during which he will attempt to secure his third consecutive term as president.
Author: Barney King, Risk Intern, Northcott Global Solutions
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