Daily Current Affairs 17.09.2022 (IAF to fly AN-32 on blended biodiesel for 200 hours, Front-loaded rate hikes needed to tame inflation: RBI officials, The consequences of declining fertility are many, Remember Periyar with a pledge to embrace dissent, Eat and learn, Caught in a zero-COVID trap)

Daily Current Affairs 17.09.2022 (IAF to fly AN-32 on blended biodiesel for 200 hours, Front-loaded rate hikes needed to tame inflation: RBI officials, The consequences of declining fertility are many, Remember Periyar with a pledge to embrace dissent, Eat and learn, Caught in a zero-COVID trap)


1. IAF to fly AN-32 on blended biodiesel for 200 hours

Performance very satisfactory, says Air Vice-Marshal

As part of efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is looking to fly an AN-32 transport aircraft modified to operate on 10% blended biodiesel for 200 flight hours in the next six months, Air Vice Marshal S. K. Jain, Assistant Chief of the Air Force (Maintenance Plans), said on Friday.

The aircraft took flight on biodiesel blended with aviation turbine fuel (ATF) for the first time in December 2018. “So far, an AN-32 has flown 65 hours with a 10% blend of biofuel and the performance has been very satisfactory,” he said at a seminar on sustainable aviation biofuels organised by the Aeronautical Society of India.

A second aircraft, a Dornier, was now undergoing ground tests after it had been cleared by the original manufacturer of the engine, Honeywell, for use of 50% biofuel, he said.

The global aviation industry is one of the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The fuel consumption of the IAF for 2021-22 was 6.2 lakh kilo litres, which contributed 15 lakh tonnes of carbon dioxide.

On the civil aviation front, an official from aircraft manufacturer Airbus said it had plans to offer 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) compatibility on its commercial aircraft latest by 2030.

National Policy on Biofuels 2018

A National Policy on biofuels was made by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy during the year 2009. The policy was introduced in recognition of the fact that India still relied largely on imported crude oil to fulfill domestic consumption requirements.

National Policy on Biofuels

Biofuels have garnered global attention in recent times and it is imperative to keep up with the pace of developments in the field of biofuels. Biofuels are of strategic importance in India and augers well with the initiatives of the Government. 

  • India still relies heavily on crude oil imports for its domestic consumption requirements. However, fluctuating crude oil prices in the world market could affect the developing countries significantly.
  • Biofuels program in India has been largely impacted due to the sustained and quantum non-availability of domestic feedstock for biofuel production which needs to be addressed.
  • The National Biofuels Draft Policy came to light in 2007 and was launched by 2009.

The objective of the National Policy on Biofuels 2018: The policy is aimed at taking forward the indicative target of achieving 20% blending of biofuels with fossil-based fuels by 2030.

  • The policy intends to ensure the adequate and sustained availability of domestic feedstock for biofuel production, increasing farmers’ income, import reduction, employment generation and waste to wealth creation.
  • This policy clearly exhibits the Centre’s push towards strengthening the energy infrastructure of the country while promoting the agenda of sustainability.

Salient Features of the National Policy on Biofuels, 2018

The salient features of the National Policy on Biofuels, 2018 are:

The policy categorizes biofuels into:

  • Basic biofuels – First Generation (1G) bioethanol & biodiesel
  • Advanced biofuels – Second Generation (2G) ethanol, Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and drop-in fuels
  • Third Generation Biofuels – Bio-CNG

The categorization aids in the extension of appropriate financial and fiscal incentives under each category.

  • The policy expands the scope of raw materials to be used for ethanol production by allowing the use of Sugarcane Juice, sugar-containing materials like Sugar Beet, starch containing materials like Cassava, damaged food grains like broken rice, and rotten potatoes which are unfit for human consumption.
  • The Policy allows the usage of surplus food grains for the production of ethanol to be used for blending with petrol. This is to ensure that the farmers get the appropriate price for their produce during the surplus production phase.
  • The Policy indicates a viability gap funding scheme for 2G ethanol Bio refineries of Rs.5000 crore in 6 years in addition to additional tax incentives, higher purchase price as compared to 1G biofuels. The policy places a thrust on Advanced Biofuels.
  • Setting up of supply chain mechanisms for biodiesel production from non-edible oilseeds, used cooking oil, and short gestation crops are encouraged under the Policy.
  • The Policy enlists all the roles and responsibilities of all the concerned Departments/Ministries with respect to biofuels to provide synergy in the efforts.

Benefits of National Policy of Biofuels, 2018

The National Policy of Biofuels, 2018 offers the following benefits:

  • It reduces the country’s dependence on imports.
  • It promotes a cleaner environment: It results in a reduction in the burning of crops, as the agricultural waste/residue is converted to bioethanol.
  • The re-use of cooking oil presents grave health hazards, however, it’s a potential feedstock for biodiesel.
  • It also aids in Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) management. There are technologies available that can convert waste/plastic in the MSW to biofuels. One ton of such waste has the potential to provide around 20% reduction in fuels. 
  • The process of production of biofuels will aid in the creation of jobs.
  • The conversion of surplus grains and agricultural biomass can help in price stabilization and thereby provide an additional source of income to the farmers.


A hydrocarbon fuel that is produced directly or indirectly from an organic matter is known as Biofuel. Biofuels are usually produced through a contemporary process (rather than from a slow geological process) from biomass. They are substitutes for the conventional forms of fuels – fossil fuels.

  • The rising prices of oil, emission of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and depletion of the non-renewable sources of fuel provide the thrust to shift towards more sustainable options of fuels.
  • The word biofuel is usually reserved for liquid or gaseous fuels, used for transportation. 

Biofuels categorized

Biofuels are categorized as First-Generation biofuels, Second Generation biofuels, Third Generation biofuels, and Fourth Generation biofuels.

  • First Generation Biofuels: These are usually made from food sources containing sugar, starch, vegetable oil, or animal fats. The process utilizes conventional technology. Eg. Bioether
  • These kinds of biofuels usually create an imbalance in the food economy as they tend to use agricultural crops, thus, leading to increased food prices and hunger.
  • Second Generation Biofuels: these biofuels utilize inedible parts of the plant such as stems and husk to produce biofuel. These fuels usually require biochemical or thermochemical conversions during production. Eg. Biodiesel
    • These biofuels do not affect the food economy; however, their production process is quite complicated.
    • These fuels, however, emit fewer greenhouse gases in comparison to the first-generation biofuels.
  • Third Generation Biofuels: These biofuels are produced using microorganisms such as algae. Micro-organisms like algae can be grown on land and water unsuitable for food production. This in return, reduces the strain on depleted water resources. Eg. Butanol
  • Fourth Generation Biofuels: plants used for the production of the fourth-generation biofuel, are genetically modified to absorb and store higher amounts of carbon which can be harvested as biomass. 
    • This is then converted into biofuels using chemical conversion or thermochemical conversions.
    • The fuel is pre-combusted and the carbon is captured. Then the carbon is geo-sequestered, meaning that the carbon is stored in depleted oil or gas fields or in unmineable coal seams.
    • These fuels are mostly carbon neutral. Eg. Electrofuels

Advantages of Biofuels

Biofuels offer a wide range of advantages, but their primary advantage is that they offer a green shift from conventional non-renewable fossil fuels. Some of the other benefits of Biofuels are:

  • Availability: since biofuels only require biomass for their production, which is ubiquitous, biofuels are easy to produce.
  • Reduction in waste: biofuels can also be produced using waste materials such as municipal sewage waste, inedible parts of the crops. This effectively aids in the reduction of waste.  
  • Reduce dependency on crude oil and non-renewable sources of fuels.
  • Economic development: the production of biofuels can be a labour-intensive process thus resulting in the creation of jobs. This can provide a source of employment. It can aid in the development of rural areas when the second-generation biofuel production units are set up there.

Disadvantages of Biofuels

There are a few disadvantages that are associated with the production and usage of biofuels, such as:

  • Efficiency: The efficiency of biofuels is much lesser compared to fossil fuels, as fossil fuels produce more energy on burning.
  • Loss of biodiversity: the genetically modified crops used for the production of fourth-generation biofuels could result in a loss of biodiversity.
  • Availability of space: production of biofuels requires land, and in the case of second-generation biofuels, the crops used are mostly non-food crops, thus the production of biofuels requires a lot of space.
  • Food shortage:  The first-generation biofuels make use of food sources and there is an imminent threat of facing food shortage if the production of biofuels is carried out extensively.
  • Water usage: Massive quantities of water are required for proper irrigation of biofuel crops as well as to manufacture the fuel, which could strain local and regional water resources. This is, however, not the problem in case of the third-generation biofuels.

2. Front-loaded rate hikes needed to tame inflation: RBI officials

‘Anchoring inflation expectations can reduce medium-term growth sacrifice’

The Reserve Bank of India will have to front-load its monetary policy to fight stubborn inflation and shield medium-term growth, RBI officials wrote in an article in the bank’s monthly bulletin.

Inflation has remained above the RBI’s tolerance level since January, prompting it to raise interest rates by a total of 140 basis points in the current cycle. The bank is widely expected to raise by another 25 to 50 basis points at its next meeting at the end of this month.

“At this critical juncture, monetary policy has to perform the role of nominal anchor for the economy as it charts a new growth trajectory,” the officials led by Deputy Governor Michael D. Patra wrote in the article on the ‘State of the Economy’. “Front-loading of monetary policy actions can keep inflation expectations firmly anchored and reduce the medium-term growth sacrifice.”

The officials said the August inflation reading of 7% was in line with its prognosis that inflation had peaked in April and would grudgingly edge down over time.

There was, however, a resurgence of food price pressures, mainly from cereals, even as fuel and core components such as transport and manufacturing provided a modest measure of respite.

“We maintain our view that inflation momentum should ease in Q3 and turn mildly negative in Q4. With base effects being favourable in the second half… inflation should moderate, although upside risks are in the air.”

Aggregate demand was firm and poised to expand further as the festival season sets in, they added.

3. Editorial-1: The consequences of declining fertility are many

A below replacement level fertility rate would mean a smaller dividend window than expected

Though the global population, in terms of numbers, has been steadily increasing — some reports suggest that it could grow to around 8.5 billion in 2030 — there is an interesting aspect to this: average global fertility has been consistently declining over the past 70 years. The average number of children per woman in the reproductive age group has declined by 50%, from an average of five children per woman in 1951 to 2.4 children in 2020, according to the World Population Prospects 2022 by the United Nations population estimates and projections, and prepared by the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat.

This is the result of speeding up the social phenomenon of demographic transition. Poorer countries seem to be speeding up the transition ladder a lot faster than the richer ones. Britain took 130 years to transition from a fertility rate of five per woman in 1800 to two in 1930, whereas South Korea took 20 years from 1965 to 1985 to achieve the same. The newly released World Population Prospectus notes that the global fertility rate fell from three in 1990 to 2.3 in 2021. Sub-Saharan African countries are expected to contribute more than half the population growth after 2050 and grow through 2100. Most advanced economies have their fertility rate below the replacement rate of 2.1, with South Korea reporting the lowest at 1.05 children per woman.

The Indian setting is no different, with its fertility rate falling below the replacement level for the first time to 2.0 in 2021, according to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS). The rate has dipped 10% in just five years.

At the time of Independence, India’s fertility rate was six per woman, and it had taken 25 years to reach five, with the government launching the first ever family planning programme in the world in 1952. India’s fertility further declined to four in the 1990s when Kerala became the first State in India to have a fertility rate below replacement level; slowly, other States followed suit. As reported by the NFHS 2021, only five States have a fertility rate above the replacement rate: Bihar (3), Meghalaya (2.9), Uttar Pradesh (2.4), Jharkhand (2.3), and Manipur (2.2). The steady dip in fertility rates has been explained as an effect of increased use of contraception, more years of average schooling, better health care, and an increase in the mean marriage age of women.

Many economic implications

Countries in the earlier stages of demographic transition find positive effects of lower fertility on income as a major portion of the workforce moves to modern sectors of the economy with fertility dipping. Lower fertility rates can be viewed as both a cause and consequence of economic development. Lower fertility impacts women’s education positively, which in turn lowers the fertility of the next generations. With better infrastructure development, better health care, and education, fertility drops and income rises. The spiral of lower fertility leads to a window of time when the ratio of the working-age population is higher than that of the dependent age groups. This high proportion of people in the workforce boosts income and investment, given the higher level of saving due to lower dependence.

The falling fertility rate will also lead to lower pressure on land, water and other resources and would also contribute to achieving environmental goals. After the window where a country reaps the benefits of the demographic dividend, the huge working age population moves to old age, supported by fewer workers.

Japan was the first country to experience the implications of falling fertility rates. The increasing dependency ratio has led to near zero GDP growth since the 1990s, and the country is facing fiscal challenges to meet rising social security costs. Other Asian countries such as South Korea are now reporting lower fertility than Japan which is now optimistic about having managed the lower fertility without moving to an utter demographic collapse.

A fall in fertility rate beyond replacement level would have a negative effect on the proportion of the working population, which in turn will affect output in an economy. A rise in education and independence among women would enhance their labour participation, which could arrest the fall in labour participation up to a limit. An influx of immigrants from countries with higher population growth could also play a positive part.

The impact of fertility drop on productivity is also highly debated. While a higher level of education and technological advancement in areas including artificial intelligence could increase the productivity of the lower working age population, a paper, “The End of Economic Growth? Unintended Consequences of a Declining Population”, by Stanford economist Charles Jones argues that falling fertility could diminish the creative capacity of humankind. He points to the need for ideas in technological advancement and productivity boost, which even artificial intelligence is still not capable of.

An ageing population will also affect global interest rates negatively as the share of people over 50 years will form almost 40% of the population by 2100. In their book The Great Demographic Reversal: Ageing Societies, Waning Inequality and an Inflation Revival, economists Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan explain how falling fertility will have a positive effect on inflation through higher wages due to lower labour supply and a change in the nature of unemployment inflation trade-off, as now low inflation can be maintained even with low unemployment.

The book also takes a different view on the impact of lower fertility on public finance. Popular theory suggests increased pressure on governments due to a high dependency ratio. The book puts up an alternate narrative of the fall in government debt due to lower savings of households and corporates due to higher dependency and the government thus running on surplus than deficit banking on the logic of accounting and higher inflation.

Dealing with fertility decline

The fall in fertility around the globe has been a result of decades of demographic process, and hence needs scientific and sustainable policies for mitigation. Even though there is looming pessimism about a lower fertility rate, there are ways to get the most out of it and diminish its negative effects. The advancement in health care and better nutrition around the world have increased the life expectancy and productivity of older citizens. Reforms in the labour market to induce more flexibility in the labour market would encourage working women to have more children and non-working mothers to enter the labour market.

Countries across the globe are experimenting with policies to boost fertility. Germany found success in boosting births through liberal labour laws, allowing more parental leave and benefits. Denmark offers state-funded IVF for women below 40 years, and Hungary recently nationalised IVF clinics. Poland gives out monthly cash payments to parents having more than two children, whereas Russia makes a one-time payment to parents when their second child is born. Russia also reinstituted the Soviet-era ‘Mother Heroine’ title, who bore and raised more than 10 children amounting to almost a one-time payment of ₹13 lakh.

In perspective

Though the benefits of demographic dividend are being reaped, the below replacement level fertility rate would mean a smaller dividend window than expected. Although India’s working-age population will continue to grow for many more decades, it would need to keep an eye on fertility dips. Liberal labour reforms, encouraging higher female labour force participation rate, and a higher focus on nutrition and health would ensure sustained labour supply and output despite lower fertility. India, like other countries in the globe, would need to be equipped to aid the patter of more tiny feet sooner or later.

4. Editorial-2: Remember Periyar with a pledge to embrace dissent

With majoritarianism on the rise, the iconoclast’s ideas on debate and rationality of thought are more relevant than ever

We celebrate Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’s birth anniversary (September 17) as Social Justice Day. At a fundamental level, I consider this a day for recalibrating our vision for a world where social justice and rationality define “the best possible version of truth” for a large majority of people. Even Periyar would have wanted us to question every concept and framework in the world, and not accept anything, because someone told us so. He converted interested crowds into keen listeners, listeners into avid thinkers, and thinkers into principled politicians and die-hard activists. Even those who did not enter the political fray tried to understand why he was steadfast about what he stood for.

Vision for the future

When he presented his thoughts, there was nuance, honesty, and an explicitness, which prompted even people practising different faiths to discuss and debate his ideas on rationality and religion. Periyar himself said, “Everyone has the right to refute any opinion. But no one has the right to prevent its expression.”

Periyar is often referred to as an iconoclast, for the rebellious nature of his ideas and the vigour with which he acted. His vision for the future was a part of all his actions. He did not merely aim at the eradication of social evils; he also wanted to put an end to activities that do not collectively raise standards of society. The radical nature of his ideas drew constant opposition.

Here, I would also want to debate some of the concepts propounded by Periyar. It is good that we refer to Periyar as an iconoclast and not an icon, because he would have dismantled that notion of an all-powerful icon himself.

He was one of the pioneering voices against the Kula Kalvi Thittam introduced by the then Chief Minister C. Rajagopalachari. It was not just a political statement; Periyar felt that it would encourage divisions based on caste that might cause irreparable damage to the social fabric. Kula Kalvi Thittam proposed to impose on schoolchildren a method of education, wherein students would learn their family’s profession as part of the school curriculum. The proposal led to an uproar in the State led by voices such as Periyar and C.N. Annadurai. It was withdrawn and a message was sent to the wider world that Tamil Nadu stood united when it comes to caste oppression-related issues.

Foundation of rationalism

Periyar’s vision was about inclusive growth and freedom of individuals. He was an important ideologue of his day because of the clarity in his political stand. More importantly, he understood the evolution of political thought and was able to glide through time with this. He presented rationalism as a solid foundation for thinking along these lines. He said, “Wisdom lies in thinking. The spearhead of thinking is rationalism.”

Periyar was way ahead of his time. All the reforms he shared with people could not be implemented at the time because of the searing discussions they led to. It took years for the ideas to take shape in a way that could be implemented.

One such reform measure he felt was needed to change the caste dynamic in society was ‘Priesthood for all castes’. Has the opposition to such ideas been reduced in a way? Not really. But we shall continue to maintain a civil debate for the overall betterment of society, as Periyar said.

The struggle against the eradication of social evils takes several decades and Periyar with his idea of meaningful rebellion has guided me to play a part in this movement. It will be a guiding force for every student reading Periyar too. “Whomsoever I love and hate, my principle is the same. That is, the educated, the rich and the administrators should not suck the blood of the poor.”

Periyar said, “Any opposition not based on rationalism or science or experience, will one day or other, reveal the fraud, selfishness, lies, and conspiracies.” We can posit this with regard to the extreme-right activities we see happening across the country and sometimes abroad too.

Violence against minorities

On one level, a few people are benefiting greatly from the rampant rise of acts of violence against minorities. These people have such an external defence mechanism that it becomes easy for them to use incendiary rhetoric and get away with it. The discussion that Periyar initiated continues to-date, and is the antithesis to this manner of societal regression. Periyar proclaimed that he would always stand with the oppressed in the fight against oppressors and that his enemy was oppression.

There have been several social reformers in Tamil Nadu who shared their revolutionary thoughts with the people in the past century. In that spectrum, Periyar occupies a unique place because he made interactions of multiple worlds possible. The world of social reform movements interacted with the world of people’s politics when Periyar took over a stage or when he wrote. He focused on the progress of Tamil Nadu and was clear that it would be a never-ending journey.

Spaces for debate are shrinking all over the world. Majoritarianism and populism are not enabling sensible conversations in any public sphere. At such a time, Periyar stands as a stellar precedent, reminding us of a time when people with opposing ideas were invited to the stage for a debate. As a part of creating a society with social justice at its core, let us pledge to create open spaces for discussions in our communities. If need be, let us spearhead such activities on whatever scale. Only these spaces have the potential of creating a positive change at an ideological level.

5. Editorial-3: Eat and learn

Tamil Nadu’s breakfast scheme is a good model for other States to follow

Sometimes the ability of a government to find resources for a good scheme is only limited by its intent. The Tamil Nadu government’s launch of the free breakfast scheme for schoolchildren is an instance of a policy initiative with far-reaching consequences for school education and public health. As Chief Minister M.K. Stalin himself said at the launch of the scheme, provision of free breakfast is not a freebie, but the foremost duty of a government to ensure no child goes hungry. Mr. Stalin framed his words and deeds from the promontory of the progressive Dravidian model, which promises inclusive growth for all segments of the population. A key element is the welfare of children, which explains Tamil Nadu’s early emphasis on feeding children in schools. The importance of a daily breakfast as the most important meal of the day is widely acknowledged. Multiple studies across the globe indicate that eating breakfast regularly confers positive outcomes on students, affecting their ability to focus, learn and retain information positively. School performance improves, as do behaviour and cognition, but a regular breakfast also takes care of diet quality, micronutrient sufficiency, anaemia and height and weight issues in children, and is even believed to sculpt BMI scores for the future. The government has targeted providing schoolchildren an average of 293 calories and an average protein input of 9.85 gm per day. The mid-day meal that is already being provided to students in schools comes up to an average of 553 calories and 18 gm of protein, giving every student who takes the food supplied in school about 846 cal and nearly 28 gm of protein a day. The Centre’s midday meal guidelines prescribe between 450-700 cals per child per day, and a protein intake of 12-20 gm per day.

While the proposed menu for the Tamil Nadu government’s breakfast scheme will take care of hunger, the calorific, energy and micronutrient requirements of the children, with a diet rich in local preparations and vegetables, it also has to provide adequate attention to taste and quality parameters. The government, rich with its experience of dealing with the mid-day meal scheme over several decades, must avoid the errors of omission and commission — including pilferage, poor quality of food, delays in sanctioning funds, and caste-related disruptions — that have been hurdles in its path earlier. Other State governments would also do well to be inspired by Tamil Nadu, which has allowed its intent to triumph over the state of its finances, finding money to fund this very crucial aspect of nation building — ensuring the growth and development of children.

6. Editorial-4: Caught in a zero-COVID trap

China’s strategy of lockdown and mass testing that made sense in a world without vaccines is now past its sell-by date. Ananth Krishnan reports on what the extreme measures and the expansion of state power have meant for the daily lives of residents

In pre-pandemic times, visitors to Shenzhen would often feel as if they were travelling in time to the future. China’s technology hub is famed for being at the forefront of adopting new technologies that still remain on blueprints in the rest of the world, from futuristic buildings with sprawling indoor gardens that appear right out of a sci-fi movie, to the ubiquitous use of facial recognition technology for everything from riding subways to entering supermarkets.

Today, arriving in Shenzhen still feels like time travel — except now it is to the past. More precisely, it is to two years ago at the height of the pandemic, when lockdowns were part of the daily vocabulary globally and COVID-19 was seen as a deadly and life-threatening disease in a world without vaccines.

On an afternoon this June, a group of travellers arrived in Shenzhen in the Chinese mainland from Hong Kong. The journey, once a smooth, 20-minute train ride, now involves a gruelling 12-hour exercise at the border control point. This includes two deeply invasive nasal swabs that, for some travellers, even drew blood. The group was greeted by an army of Shenzhen health personnel dressed in full-white PPEs.

The ‘Big Whites’ or ‘Da Bai’, as the PPE-clad healthcare enforcers are known in China, have in the past two years become the faces of the country’s stringent COVID-19 regulations. China is the only country that still follows a heavy-handed ‘dynamic zero-COVID’ policy, which calls for mass testing, lockdowns and quarantining of close contacts to eliminate outbreaks in the shortest possible time.

“Keep on your masks!” a Big White yelled at one arrival whose mask had slipped slightly below her nose. The group cleared immigration after downloading and scanning numerous Chinese ‘health code’ apps that are an indispensable internal travel passport in the country today. They were then sprayed with disinfectant, along with their luggage, before being whisked away on buses, with full police escort, to be confined in a room for a mandatory 22-day quarantine. And these were all vaccinated travellers who had also been tested no less than twice in just a few hours.

While the rest of the world has sought to move on to some form of post-pandemic normalcy, China remains firmly in the grip of a harsh zero-COVID policy. China is where the pandemic began, and it appears increasingly likely that this is where the last chapter of the pandemic will end.

Endless lockdowns

On September 14, World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that the number of weekly reported deaths from COVID-19 in the second week of September was the lowest since March 2020. “We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but the end is in sight.”

In China, however, there appears to be no end in sight to measures that were first imposed in Wuhan — at a time when the idea of a lockdown was still unheard of in the rest of the world — and remain a part of life for a third straight year.

Within China, through 2020 and 2021, the zero-COVID strategy was by most accounts widely popular as it ensured a degree of normal life while the rest of the world was dealing with waves of deaths and lockdowns. By the summer of 2020, China had in fact largely emerged from the pandemic’s first wave quicker than most nations, with its stringent lockdowns and bans on international travel paying dividends. Outside of Wuhan and Hubei province, no cities faced mass deaths. Across China, schools remained open, and with the world closed off, domestic tourism boomed. So did manufacturing, with China’s exports reaching a record high during those two years while factories in much of the world were hit by COVID-19 restrictions. Zero-COVID certainly saved hundreds of thousands of lives in 2020 and 2021, a point that the government uses to justify continuing the approach.

Yet, that has become an argument increasingly difficult to make. Confronted with more transmissible variants, the ‘test and trace’ bedrock of zero-COVID has struggled. The number of cities in China under lockdown now is the highest since the early days of the pandemic. Moreover, a strategy that made sense in a world without vaccines looks increasingly past its sell-by date as the rest of the world opens. If zero-COVID gave China an advantage in the first year of the pandemic, it has now left China struggling.

Harsher measures, mounting costs

As of early September, the Chinese magazine Caixin reported, 33 cities and an estimated 65 million people in China were under lockdown (‘static management’ is the term preferred by the Chinese authorities). As vast swathes of China confronted more transmissible sub-variants of Omicron, Caixin noted, governments again “turned to the usual toolkit of mass testing and lockdowns…. despite the rising economic costs and public frustration over disruptions to daily life.”

As variants began to spread more easily, the measures to tackle them became harsher. Shanghai was placed under a brutal lockdown of two months, with most residents not allowed to step out of their homes and many complaining of food shortages.

When an earthquake in early September struck Sichuan province, which was dealing with an outbreak, residents rushed to leave their apartment blocks to find Big Whites barring their exits.

When parts of Beijing came under lockdown in May, cancer hospitals stopped taking patients for treatment. “As long as it’s not COVID that you die from, it seemed they did not care,” the daughter of one of the patients told The Hindu.

In Yining in western Xinjiang, which has been under a harsh lockdown since early August, thousands of residents took to social media to complain of acute food and medicine shortages. Most of the posts were deleted, while state media responded with a campaign to show an efficiently managed city. One Yining resident posted that his young child had died in lockdown without access to medical treatment.

Meanwhile, economic costs are mounting. Currently, planning internal travel within China is a fraught exercise, as each city has its own health code app and internal quarantine rules. The health code app determines every aspect of life. In Beijing, residents have to take a PCR test every 72 hours to preserve a green code, without which they cannot access schools, hospitals, offices or public transport. Uncertainty of lockdowns has dampened business sentiment amid already brewing troubles in the property market, a lynchpin of growth. In the second quarter of the year, China’s economy grew by 0.4%.

Most people in China have been largely accepting of the measures — they do not, of course, have a choice in the matter — seeing it as a price to be paid for normalcy and to avoid the high death toll seen in the West (a fact highlighted ad nauseam by state media). Yet, three years into the pandemic, there are signs of public acceptance waning as more cities come under restrictions. Generally supportive attitudes to zero-COVID change overnight when one’s own town is in lockdown. As Shanghai’s residents faced two months of lockdown, thousands took to social media to ask what the point of the measures was when few severe cases had been reported officially.

No exit strategy

If China were to open tomorrow, its healthcare system would certainly be overrun and likely face a near-collapse (as India’s did during the second wave). This is the argument from Chinese officials in justifying the current approach.

It is also the argument used right at the top. As more questions began to be raised about China’s approach in sticking to zero-COVID, President Xi Jinping, during a symbolic visit to Wuhan in end June, mounted a robust defence of the measures, saying they “must be upheld unwaveringly”.

“If China had adopted the ‘herd immunity’ policy or a hands-off approach, given its large population, the country would have faced unimaginable consequences,” he said. “Even if there are some temporary impacts on the economy, we will not put people’s lives and health in harm’s way, and we must protect the elderly and the children in particular. If we make an overall evaluation, our COVID-19 response measures are the most economical and effective.”

Indeed, as Chinese officials underline, there is no denying that China would face a wave of cases and deaths if it opened up tomorrow. Yet, the quiet criticism from some Chinese health experts is that there hasn’t even been any consideration of or planning towards an eventual exit strategy, leaving China locked in what most agree is an unsustainable and cost-heavy approach.

The most puzzling element of the current approach is the low priority accorded to vaccination. While more than 90% of the population have received two doses, the booster campaign, particularly among the elderly, has flagged. Data from Hong Kong show that three doses of Chinese vaccines are effective in preventing serious hospitalisation and death. The efficacy falls significantly when only two doses are administered.

Local government officials say their health resources are being entirely spent on regular testing and lockdowns to ensure zero-COVID. The same health workers who could have been sent door-to-door to vaccinate the elderly are instead occupied with administering lockdowns and PCR tests.

China also briefly considered and then abandoned vaccine mandates. In July, Beijing rolled out the country’s first vaccine mandate, but abandoned it within 24 hours without explanation, amid suggestions that authorities were alarmed by the number of the elderly who had not completed their full doses.

While the unvaccinated elderly remain a significant concern, also complicating any easing of zero-COVID is continued official messaging that portrays COVID-19 as a life-threatening disease. As one Beijing doctor puts it, “Even one asymptomatic case now means an entire neighbourhood will be locked down. How do you then communicate with people that at some stage we have to live with the virus?”

The politics of zero-COVID

That the doctor requested anonymity reveals how politicised this public health issue has become. There is no debate in China on the viability of the current measures, which are seen to have the personal endorsement of President Xi.

When Shanghai faced a surge in Omicron cases in February, the local health authorities, who had generally adopted a more open approach than elsewhere in the country, briefly suggested the city avoid a lockdown and adopt an approach that would mark a shift in China’s COVID-19 strategy by only focusing on severe and elderly cases.

According to a recent account from the former Central Party School professor, in Foreign Affairs magazine, Cai Xia, who was removed in 2012 after criticising Xi’s policies and is now living in the U.S., an online gathering of 60 experts decided that life in the city could go on despite the cases. “But when Xi heard about it,” Cai wrote, “he became furious. Refusing to listen to the experts, he insisted on enforcing his zero COVID policy… Just like that, a modern, prosperous city was turned into the site of a humanitarian disaster, with people starving and babies separated from their parents.” Cai was referring to Shanghai authorities taking away COVID-19 positive children from their homes without their parents.

Asked why China hasn’t considered planning an exit strategy, with 90% of its population receiving two doses and two-thirds receiving a booster dose — a number that would have been far higher with a sustained campaign — Chang Jile, who is the Vice Administrator of the National Disease Control and Prevention Administration, said the view is that the time isn’t right. “Globally, the current pandemic is still at its height and the virus is still mutating,” he said, reflecting a sharp divergence in Beijing’s view and that of the WHO. “With the dynamic zero-COVID policy, we can bring infections under control in the shortest time and at the lowest social cost.”

He also made it clear that this was the directive from the top. “President Xi has stressed the importance of targeted prevention, to get maximum results at the lowest cost, and to minimise the impact of the pandemic on social development. This requirement from central authorities is unchanged,” he said. “Our philosophy on prevention and measures is about putting people and lives first… These measures may cause some inconvenience to normal functions and life, but we should bear in mind the overall interests of the country.”

Leaving aside the fact that most residents who have suffered lockdowns would question his characterisation of “some inconvenience”, the reality is zero-COVID has become intensely political in China, seen as one of Xi’s legacies ahead of the start of his third term.

Some health experts privately hope that after the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade conclave, on October 16, when Xi is expected to secure his third term, the country will begin to consider an exit. But there are few signs of a shift in approach in public messaging about COVID-19 to back those expectations.

What may prompt a change is the economic situation in China. Local governments, already dealing with a slowing economy, are running out of money to fund the continued testing and lockdown regime. From January 2020 until April 2022, according to Caixin, China had carried out 11.5 billion PCR tests, costing $45 billion.

A cautionary tale on state power

Within China, zero-COVID has been framed as evidence of the superiority of the Chinese political system. Yet, if it was hoped that China’s extraordinary pandemic record in 2020 and 2021, after the missteps in Wuhan, would present to the world a model to be emulated, zero-COVID has instead increasingly become a cautionary tale on state power. The model has given the state extraordinary control over people’s lives in China.

The potential for abuse has already come to light. When people converged in Zhengzhou in June, in the central Henan province, to protest a financial fraud that had cost them their savings, many arrived at the city’s train station to find their health codes had turned red, meaning they would be immediately quarantined. The provincial authorities had tampered with their apps to prevent them from gathering. After the case caused an outcry, officials were later punished.

The other side of the lockdown model is the extraordinary power it has given local-level officials and neighbourhood committees, who haven’t wielded this much influence on the lives of residents since the days of Mao Zedong. Officials now have the power to indefinitely confine residents to their homes or to close businesses by citing the pandemic. A new pandemic-centred bureaucracy now controls local-level governance in China. Signs are that it has been established for the long haul. All this has also marked a significant retreat in China’s efforts to build a system of ‘rule by law’ as a constraint on official power. On the contrary, official power is arguably at its highest in decades.

Chinese social media is full of stories of local pandemic enforcers running amok, from confining residents to buildings during an earthquake to welding doors shut to prevent people from leaving. The system encourages the extremism, as a local outbreak, for Party officials, would likely be career-ending, taking precedence over every other aspect of governance, including driving economic growth. For the first time since the Mao era, the Chinese people need government permission to renew passports and leave the country.

On one recent afternoon in Beijing, Big Whites from a local neighbourhood committee descended on a small business in a Beijing complex and ordered it shut down, confiscating its property. Vague “pandemic violations” were cited for the move. When the employees protested that they had their rights under Chinese laws, the local officials said, “We can do whatever we want.”

Rather than a model to be emulated, the zero-COVID machinery in China has emerged as a warning tale. When states accumulate extraordinary power, they are unlikely to easily relinquish it.

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