‘People are starting to decline’: China’s zero Covid policy is taking its toll | Coronavirus


OThe Beijing Daily published a complex graphic on Friday identifying two people with Covid-19 and all of those they had infected, detailing the spread of Delta’s latest outbreak in the country. The card came amid growing frustration, some panic, and rare protests over the ramifications of China’s efforts to remain a ‘zero Covid’ country.

Since the first cases of the coronavirus were reported almost two years ago, China has implemented a zero tolerance Covid policy. Its success in preventing the virus from spreading across the vast country contrasts sharply with the situation in many Western countries. Since last year, fewer than 100,000 cases have been officially recorded, among a population of around 1.4 billion. At least 4,634 have died.

By comparison, the United States has reported nearly 46 million cases and over 740,000 deaths. The UK has reported nearly 9 million cases and over 140,000 deaths.

But the politics are intense. In just a handful of cases, the measures have included strict border closures, localized lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass tests on tens of millions of people. Return flights booked by Chinese citizens residing abroad are often canceled at the last minute.

On Thursday, a high-speed train from Shanghai was ordered to stop halfway before arriving in Beijing, after an attendant was identified as a close contact of a Covid-positive patient . All of the other 211 passengers on board were immediately quarantined in designated locations.

But as the world begins to slowly open up, having decided to live with the vaccine-attenuated virus, China is one of the few still clinging to an elimination strategy. Analysts and health experts are starting to wonder how long this can last, and the latest outbreak – which started earlier this month – is testing the limits again.

Delta’s latest outbreak last Friday infected more than 300 people in 12 provinces, including the capital, Beijing, in just over a week. The outbreak is centered in Inner Mongolia province but was linked to travelers.

In response, authorities again launched mass tests, halted transport and implemented local lockdowns.

Tourists stranded due to Covid in Ejin Banner, Inner Mongolia, leave on a charter train on Thursday. Photograph: VCG / Getty Images

“Such scenes have become a norm in recent months,” said Yanzhong Huang, a public health policy expert in China at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “It’s going to get more and more difficult over time. But costs are rising and yields are falling rapidly.

On Chinese social media, while the majority of commentators support the government’s approach, frustration is also expressed in Beijing, where one resident said fear has returned to his daily life, while another described people “panicked” as the situation grew more tense.

“There is a ban on eating and blockades everywhere. It is even too difficult to eat normally, ”said another resident.

There is also frustration in Ejina Banner in Inner Mongolia, where trapped tourists have posted on social media in recent days.

On Saturday, an attendant said his guests had been stranded for six days and some elderly participants were running out of medication. One of them alleged that some guests were showing symptoms but that there was no medical facility nearby. “It seems that Ejina Banner doesn’t care about the life or death of people,” they said.

“People are starting to decline,” said Professor Chunhuei Chi, director of the Oregon State University Center for Global Health. “Like everywhere in the world, we can see drawn into this pandemic for almost two years, and everywhere we see pandemic fatigue. It would surely affect the Chinese as well. “

The current crisis is the second major outbreak of the highly transmissible Delta variant this year; both have spread to several cities. The former is said to have sparked rare social unrest in Yangzhou this summer, due to the government’s inability to deliver food to residents who had been locked up for three weeks.

People line up for a Covid test in Yinchuan, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region
People line up for Covid testing in Yinchuan, northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Photograph: Xinhua / Rex / Shutterstock

At the time, some senior Chinese public health experts began to suggest that China should consider moving towards a policy of coexistence with the virus. Their comments received some support from citizens and fellow scientists, but were overwhelmed by government censorship.

Chi said the Chinese government is sticking to the strategy because it has little other choice, politically. Citing energy shortages and the housing sector crisis, he said making sure there was no major Covid outbreak was “perhaps their last bastion of credibility and legitimacy” at the National level.

But there is another motivation, stemming from the international blame directed at China for the pandemic itself, Chi said.

“From the beginning, China has constantly wanted to show the world both its capacity and its credibility in terms of controlling this pandemic. They want to demonstrate how successful China has been in containing the epidemic and its ability to mobilize all available resources.

“They want to be seen not as the cause but as the savior.”

The government’s efforts are always supported.

“Personal freedom, personal work, privacy, dignity and sanity can all be sacrificed,” one social media user said, urging others to look at the big picture.

Beijing has admitted the pandemic is the biggest challenge for the upcoming Winter Olympics in February and the Paralympic Winter Games in March. Newly released guidelines showed that participants will be quarantined before entering the “closed loop” of the competitive world, completely separated from the rest of China to avoid cross-infection.

Chi said China might be able to use the accumulated wealth to support the country and itself for another year – especially, after the date Xi Jinping is likely to run for a third presidential term – but that’s a another story for the people.

“People are already suffering, especially the large proportion of those with low to middle incomes,” he said. “They can’t take it. Limiting their mobility and economic activity will worsen their livelihoods. “

The two major outbreaks in the Delta were from domestic tourism – the only market left for the industry with no sign of international visitors returning anytime soon, even with Olympic events around the corner.

Huang said that, to some extent, Beijing also faces a dilemma. “We have already seen outbreaks in countries that take a ‘coexistence with Covid’ approach, such as Singapore. If this happens to China too, then people will turn to the government and ask, “Why have you failed to protect us?

“It’s the last thing China wants to see, especially as the Winter Olympics approach early next year.”

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