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China's Respect for Seniors Backfires When It Comes to Covid

China's Respect for Seniors Backfires When It Comes to Covid

Wednesday, 6 April, 2022 - 04:15

China’s strict Covid-zero policy is getting costlier by day. As the infectious omicron variant spreads, the government is resorting to widespread lockdowns. Shanghai, a city of 25 million people, is at a standstill, and cities accounting for a quarter of China’s gross domestic product are under some form of restrictions on movement, estimates Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

Politics is an often-cited reason to explain why China is sticking with Covid-zero. Looking for stability, Beijing is unlikely to relent before this fall’s 20th Party Congress, when President Xi Jinping is expected to start his third term.

Such reasoning, though, is increasingly unpersuasive amid media accounts of unreported deaths in nursing homes and young children separated from their families. Economists are slashing their GDP forecasts, saying the government’s 5.5% target is no longer realistic. Covid-zero has become a destabilizing factor.

More likely, China is enforcing a centuries-old social contract: Protecting the elderly at virtually any cost. After all, respect for one’s elders is a cornerstone of Confucian ethics. Of all the culture’s virtues, filial piety comes first, an ancient saying goes.

As with Hong Kong, which has one of the world’s highest Covid death rates, vast numbers of China’s elderly are not vaccinated. More than 40% of those aged 80 and above had not yet received a single dose as of mid-March. It would take at least three months to get 80% of those aged 60 and above fully jabbed, estimates Morgan Stanley. According to a recent study from Hong Kong University, two doses of Sinovac — while less effective than the treatments approved in the West — can help prevent severe illness.

Unlike the West, which prioritized the elderly in its vaccine rollouts, China started with the working population, which travels more and has wider social circles. At the time, the virus was well-contained in China, and the primary goal was to slow transmission, rather than minimizing hospitalization and deaths.

Later, even when old people became eligible, those with chronic diseases such as diabetes could get medical exemptions too. Beijing did not use its coercive power to impose jabs on those who simply preferred traditional remedies and did not trust Western medicine.

Of course, protecting the unvaccinated elderly comes at great cost, especially to young people who face a much tougher job market in the wake of the government’s big tech crackdowns. In February, the unemployment rate for those aged between 15 and 24 stood at 15.3%, versus the national average of 5.5%. Meanwhile, China is churning out a record 10.8 million college graduates this year, who are now struggling to land good jobs.

For much of last year, Xi trumpeted his signature “common prosperity” program, which aimed at broadening the middle class and narrowing wealth gaps. The guiding principle is altruism, or what neoclassical economics sees as the unselfish transfer of welfare. Without it, a society might be unwilling to shoulder the soaring cost of elderly care; young people would not want to endure extended lockdowns, with airports, restaurants and schools closed.

By the same token, the government could have squirmed out of pension obligations, too. Over 1 billion Chinese are enrolled in the public pension system, and as society ages — 12% of its population is aged 65 and above — the funding gap will only grow. Last year, fiscal subsidies to the staff pension insurance fund, China’s largest, came to 1.2 trillion yuan ($190 billion), or roughly a quarter of the fund’s total income. But a promise made must be a promise delivered. On average, a pensioner gets over 3,000 yuan a month, which is above the median per capita disposable income.

To be sure, China is creating space to loosen Covid-zero. In recent weeks, it’s approved Pfizer’s Covid-19 pill for emergency use and rapid antigen tests, and is starting trials of home-grown mRNA vaccines. One does wonder, though, why Beijing doesn’t require seniors to get jabbed and whether its respect for the elderly became counterproductive and exposed them to a highly infectious disease. As a result, China’s Gen-Z and millennials just have to sit tight and take the hit for grandma.


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