TOUGH: David Mahon says it is highly likely Chinese authorities will maintain their strict “zero covid” stance for some time yet.
Despite the global spread of Omicron, New Zealand primary sector exporters are not expecting China’s “zero covid” policy to abate any time soon.
The country’s ultra-strict policy on covid detection and containment has citizens forbidden from leaving buildings or confined to apartments if covid is detected.
Xi’an, the home of the terracotta warriors, was effectively closed in December when 150 cases were reported in a city with a population of 13 million.
Since the epidemic began 5000 people have died in China, making it one of the lowest per capita countries globally for covid death rates.
Food suppliers have also borne the strict controls, with the likes of supermarkets being shut down after traces of covid was detected in fruit imports from Vietnam.
Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) officials here have confirmed Chinese authorities are still testing and disinfecting packaging of all frozen product imports in relation to covid-19 at the border.
Imports may be suspended for a period from particular suppliers if positive detections of covid are made.
Almost a year ago, Chinese authorities suspended imports from two NZ Sealord fish processing factories after Beijing claimed issues around covid guidance and food safety management were a concern, following a live video audit.
In September Zespri faced a positive covid test from a small sample of kiwifruit in a Chinese wholesale market, despite no covid being present in Bay of Plenty at the time of the fruit’s harvest and packing.
MPI confirmed it has not been notified of any specific changes to China’s covid-19 protocols for NZ primary exports, while strict covid measures continue to operate, including temperature testing, use of protective equipment and physical distancing.
The department confirmed there were no impacts to NZ’s kiwifruit exports to China as a result of the small amount of kiwifruit associated with the covid detection in China.
Expat Kiwi and consultant David Mahon said from Beijing that it was unlikely China would be loosening its standards around covid management and food imports before the Chinese congress meets in March.
“Vaccination rates here are high at about 90%, and booster shots are being rolled out ardently. One problem is local officials try to ensure they do not make a mistake that may lead to covid circulating, so they may apply regulations over zealously,” Mahon said.
He said NZ has managed to maintain a good reputation with the standard of food products being imported during the pandemic, with the one incidence involving seafood.
The Zespri case only surfaced due to an official posting a single test result on social media, giving the incident momentum.
“There is a fair chance the standards will evolve but it would not be wise to forecast it, it can be a very opaque system,” he said.
He pointed out China has managed to handle the outbreak well, incurring less than 6000 deaths in a population of 1.4 billion and still experiencing 8% economic growth.
Mahon said Chinese attention on NZ has been more focused on this country’s ability to differentiate its foreign policy from those falling in behind United States rhetoric, which has continued from the Trump administration to President Biden.
“NZ has managed to negotiate that and maintain an independent foreign policy. There is a continuity in that which has been maintained since the Helen Clark government and that has not gone unnoticed,” he said.
He said long-term relationships between companies and government officials would also play a big part in negotiating the challenges of Omicron.
“MPI is very much respected up here for applying Chinese import standards well. There is a strong relationship there, which has been ongoing for some time now,” he said.
Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva said the sector had not been advised of any changes to Chinese covid protocols.
“A comprehensive review of the published literature on transmission risks for covid-19 by the New Zealand Food Safety Science Research Centre has found no evidence of transmission of the virus through food,” Karapeeva said.
“Furthermore, advice from the Ministry of Health indicates the risk of covid-19 being present on refrigerated goods is highly unlikely.
“The World Health Organisation has also stated there is no evidence that food or the food chain is participating in the transmission of this virus and that people should feel comfortable and safe.”
Plants are operating under guidelines agreed upon with MPI ensuring the sector’s operations do not compromise safety, or contribute to covid spread.