WHO Chief Censored in China After Calling Its ‘Zero COVID’ Policy Unsustainable

Top Chinese officials recently vowed to silence those who cast doubts on the country’s approach to managing the pandemic.
tedros xi jinping who zero covid unsustainable
The WHO chief and China's president shake hands in January 2020. Photo: Naohiko Hatta / AFP

China’s zero-tolerance mindset to COVID-19 appears to be extending to even just criticism of its pandemic policy, signaling the country’s intent to uphold some of the world’s harshest measures to contain the coronavirus despite growing economic and social costs.

The country’s internet censors have removed comments critical of China’s “zero COVID” approach, including remarks from the WHO chief that the country’s absolutist pandemic policy isn’t sustainable. 


Video clips of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s Tuesday remarks calling for a change in strategy have been largely scrubbed off the Chinese internet. Screenshots of foreign media reports on his comments were also blocked on Chinese social media.

“When we talk about the zero COVID strategy, we don’t think that is sustainable, considering the behavior of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future,” Tedros said in a press briefing on Tuesday. The UN agency has discussed this with Chinese experts, he added. 

“Especially when we now have a good knowledge and understanding of the virus and we have good tools to use, transitioning into another strategy would be important,” Tedros said. 

On WeChat, an article by the official account of the United Nations featuring Tedros’ comments in text has remained. But a video clip of the remarks embedded in the article has been removed over what the messaging app said was a “violation of regulations.” The messaging app has also banned users from sharing the article. A similar UN post on Twitter-like Weibo was reportedly also removed.

Tedros joins a growing list of business leaders and public health experts to question the sustainability of China’s zero tolerance approach. At a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his closest advisors last week, the Chinese leaders doubled down on its zero-COVID policy and vowed to “resolutely fight against any speech that distorts, questions or rejects” the country’s pandemic measures.


Concerns about their economic costs, including what investors called an unprecedented capital flight, have also been censored from Chinese social media. Recurring lockdowns have slowed manufacturing activities and driven out foreign businesses and investors. A number of prominent economists have sounded the alarm, painting a bleak outlook for the world’s second-largest economy.

China is one of few countries in the world that continue to follow a strict eradication approach. With stringent lockdowns and hard-line quarantine measures, Chinese authorities try to stamp out any outbreak as soon as it is detected. In Shanghai, a lockdown that was supposed to last four days has entered its sixth week, fueling anguish in the community.

The approach has allowed China to keep its COVID death toll at around 15,000, remarkably low compared to other countries. According to a recent modeling study published in the scientific journal Nature, the more transmissible variant of Omicron could bring a “tsunami” of infections and up to 1.6 million deaths if the country lifted the harsh restrictions. 

Speaking after Tedros at the Tuesday briefing, WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said pandemic control measures should give “due respect to individuals and human rights.” 

“We have always said as WHO that we need to balance the control measures against the impact they have on society, the impact they have on the economy, and that’s not always an easy calibration,” he added.