Hong Kong (CNN) – When the highly infectious delta variant of the novel coronavirus took hold in China last month, Zhang Wenhong, a respected infectious disease expert in Shanghai, told a concerned Chinese public to prepare to live with the virus for the long haul. term. But his frankness came at a price.
For more than a year, China had largely kept the virus at bay by sealing its borders and quickly controlling local outbreaks with zero tolerance for infections. But despite the strict measures, a dozen cases of the delta variant were detected among cleaning personnel at one of the busiest airports in the country. The variant soon spread to more than half of China’s 31 provinces, resulting in more than 1,000 infections in less than three weeks.
The rapid spread of delta coincided with efforts to increase vaccines. To date, 1.9 billion doses of household vaccines have been administered in China, according to the National Health Commission (NHC).
Writing on the Chinese social media site Weibo, Zhang said that it might not be possible for existing vaccines to completely eradicate COVID-19, and that transmissions could still occur after everyone is fully vaccinated, albeit at a lower rate. and causing fewer deaths.
“What we’ve been through is not the hardest part. What is hardest is finding the wisdom to coexist with the virus in the long term,” wrote Zhang, who has been repeatedly compared to American epidemiologist Anthony Fauci for being a widely vocal voice. reliable about the pandemic.
Learning to live with the virus is not a scandalous proposition. Most scientists believe that covid-19 is likely here to stay, and an increasing number of countries with high vaccination rates, such as Great Britain and Singapore, are opting for a coexistence strategy, hoping that it eventually becomes a less dangerous endemic disease, like the flu.
But in China, Zhang’s comments sparked a flurry of attacks online, with naysayers accusing him of refuting the country’s much-hyped covid-zero strategy.
Some enraged nationalists called him a “traitor” who “blindly worshiped Western ideas.” Others alleged that he was in collusion with foreign forces to sabotage China’s response to COVID-19. Others sought to undermine his academic credentials, unearthing his doctoral thesis published two decades ago and accusing him of plagiarism.
The prestigious Shanghai Fudan University, where Zhang earned his doctorate and teaches, said in a statement Sunday that it had received complaints against Zhang and was aware of the allegations online about his thesis. He said he had launched an investigation to verify the claims.
The attack on Zhang underscored the highly politicized nature of discussions about China’s strategy against COVID-19.
Since China halted its initial outbreak, the ruling Communist Party has upheld the country’s effective containment efforts as proof of the alleged superiority of its authoritarian political system. The success of its zero covid strategy is hailed as an ideological and moral victory over the hesitant response from the United States and other Western democracies, which had struggled to control the surge in cases and deaths.
Those political nuances were highlighted in a comment published on August 7 by the party’s daily spokesperson, People’s Daily. In the article, former health minister Gao Qiang attacked the idea of ”coexisting with the virus”, accusing the United States and Britain of “ignoring people’s health and safety” and causing a resurgence of outbreaks.
“This is an error in decision-making on covid-19 caused by the flaws in the political systems of countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as an inevitable result of upholding individualistic values,” wrote Gao, who trained as economist.
Without naming Zhang, the former minister said he was surprised to see some Chinese experts advocating for the coexistence approach.
Gao’s article has further fueled nationalist fury against Zhang, while also appearing to indicate the government’s continued commitment to its zero covid approach.
This commitment appeared to be reinforced on Aug. 11, when police detained a teacher in eastern Jiangxi province for 15 days for commenting on a news article that said the country may “coexist with the coronavirus,” according to a local government advisory. .
But still, many experts, academics, and supporters have rallied in Zhang’s defense.
Ning Yi, a public health expert, posted a photo of him and Zhang in support on Weibo, commenting: “If we cannot protect such a selfless expert as Zhang Wenhong, then our society is doomed.”
Yan Feng, a professor of Chinese literature at Fudan University, warned of the potential chilling effect of the political witch hunt against Zhang. “Who will dare to speak up, who will dare to take responsibility, who will act according to their professional judgment in the future?” He asked.
Some Weibo users said the attacks on Zhang are reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, during which scientists, along with intellectuals and artists, were subjected to public humiliation and savage attacks by the Red Guards for their alleged lack of political reliability. .
This is not the first time that Zhang has drawn the ire of Chinese nationalists, who increasingly dominate China’s social media by attacking and silencing the most liberal and moderate voices. Last year, he was accused of indulging in Western lifestyles when he suggested that children should eat eggs and milk for protein for breakfast instead of traditional Chinese rice porridge.
Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said the rapidly shrinking space for public discussion on epidemic control strategy is worrying.
“Experts involved in decision-making should be encouraged to communicate with the public, and different opinions should have channels to speak out,” he said. “From a public health perspective, it is unhealthy and absolutely dangerous to allow only one type of voice.”
In recent days, China’s confirmed local cases have dropped to single digits, a possible indicator that its zero covid containment measures are working against the delta variant.
And on Wednesday, Zhang broke three weeks of silence on Weibo, updating his 3.8 million followers on his recent work. In an apparent attempt to allay fears that he had been pressured to remain silent, Zhang said that he does not frequently post on Weibo and that he decided to post again because many people had expressed concern for him.
He also tried to roll back his earlier call for China to learn to coexist with the virus.
“The strategy against covid-19 that our country has adopted is the one that best suits us at this time,” he wrote. “You have to try on the shoes yourself to see if they fit you.”