'Zero-COVID' exit 'tough' for China, WHO says

China is facing a "very tough" time as it abruptly drops its zero-tolerance stance on COVID-19 and allows people to live with the virus, a World Health Organization spokesperson says.

Challenges include ensuring population 'appropriately vaccinated,' preparing hospitals

A woman collects COVID-19 antigen kits from a worker through a set of glass doors at a pharmacy in Beijing.
A woman collects COVID-19 antigen kits from a worker at a pharmacy in Beijing on Sunday. Facing a surge in COVID-19 cases, China is trying to strengthen hospitals as it rolls back controls that confined millions of people to their homes and set off protests. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

China is facing a "very tough" time as it dismantles its rigid "zero-COVID" policy and allows people to live with the virus, posing challenges preparing hospitals and ensuring people are sufficiently protected, the World Health Organization said.

Beijing abruptly dropped its zero-tolerance stance last week after protests against its often-draconian COVID-19 lockdowns. The shift, welcomed by many inside the country, has also stoked concerns that infections could spike.

Asked about the policy changes, WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris told a Geneva press briefing on Tuesday that China faced a "very tough and difficult time."

"It's always very difficult for any country coming out of a situation where you've had very, very tight controls," she said, adding that other countries like Australia had experienced this.

"We've always said before: Don't go into lockdown too easily and too quickly because it's really, really hard to come out."

WATCH | China lifts 'zero-COVID' policy following protests: 

China eases strict ‘zero COVID’ measures after protests

4 months ago
Duration 2:03
China is loosening its strict COVID-19 restrictions following protests, but that comes with an increased risk of catching the virus in the country. Experts warn that if the population isn't properly vaccinated, another variant could emerge.

Among the challenges are ensuring the population is "appropriately vaccinated" and preparing hospitals for both a potential increase in cases and a potential rush of people who may be infected with other illnesses.

"There are many, many things you have to put in place at community level, at hospital level, at national level in order to maintain that transition," Harris said.

The WHO typically refrains from commenting on individual countries' policies, although the agency's director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, did say in May that China's COVID-19 policies were not sustainable.

WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said earlier this month that he was pleased that China was adjusting its strategy, and he urged it to continue increasing its vaccination coverage.

Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at Britain's University of East Anglia, said many people in China were vaccinated too long ago to have adequate protection.

"It's effectively lost the benefits of its vaccination campaign. Not entirely, but largely," he told Reuters. "And so it's in a really difficult position."