Monday, November 29

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

OROn Friday, the Beijing Daily published an intricate graphic identifying two people sick with Covid-19 and all the people they had infected, detailing the spread of the latest Delta outbreak in the country. The map came amid growing frustration, some panic and rare protests over the ramifications of China’s effort to remain a “Covid-free” country.

Since the first coronavirus cases were reported nearly two years ago, China has implemented a zero-tolerance Covid policy. Its success in preventing the spread of the virus across the vast country is in stark contrast to the situation in many Western countries. Since last year, fewer than 100,000 cases have been officially recorded, out of a population of about 1.4 billion. At least 4,634 have died.

By comparison, the US has reported nearly 46 million cases and more than 740,000 deaths. The UK has reported almost 9 million cases and more than 140,000 deaths.

But the politics are intense. In just a handful of cases, the measures have included strict border closures, localized closures, travel restrictions, and mass testing of tens of millions of people. Flights back home booked by Chinese nationals living abroad are often canceled at the last minute.

On Thursday, a Shanghai high-speed train was ordered to stop midway before reaching Beijing, after an attendant was identified as a close contact of a Covid-positive patient. The other 211 passengers on board were immediately quarantined at designated locations.

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

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

In response, authorities again launched massive tests, halted transportation, and enacted local closures.

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

“Those scenes have become the norm in recent months,” said Yanzhong Huang, an expert on China’s public health policy at the New York Council on Foreign Relations. “It will get more and more difficult over time. But the costs are getting higher and the returns are falling rapidly. “

On Chinese social media, while most commentators support the government’s approach, frustration is also expressed in Beijing, where one resident said fear had returned to his daily life, while another described people “entering in a panic “as the situation becomes more tense.

“There are food bans and closures everywhere. It’s too difficult to even eat normally, ”said another resident.

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

On Saturday, a tour leader said his guests had been stranded for six days and some elderly participants were running out of medications. One alleged that some guests were showing symptoms, but there was no nearby medical institution. “It seems that Ejina Banner does not care about people’s lives or deaths,” they said.

“People are starting to decline,” said Professor Chunhuei Chi, director of the global health center at Oregon State University. “Like anywhere in the world, we can be dragged into this pandemic for almost two years, and everywhere we see pandemic fatigue. That would surely affect the Chinese people as well. “

The current crisis is the second major outbreak of the highly communicable Delta variant this year; both spread to various cities. First reportedly It sparked a rare social unrest in Yangzhou this summer, as the government failed to deliver food to residents who had been locked up for three weeks.

People queue for Covid tests in Yinchuan, in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region
People are queuing for Covid tests in Yinchuan, in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of northwest China. Photograph: Xinhua / Rex / Shutterstock

At that time, some high-profile Chinese public health experts began suggesting that China should consider moving toward a policy of coexistence with the virus. His comments received some support from citizens and fellow scientists, but were drowned out by government censorship.

Chi said the Chinese government sticks to the strategy because politically it has no other choice. Citing power shortages and the housing industry crisis, he said that ensuring there was no major Covid outbreak was “possibly his last bastion of credibility and legitimacy” at the national level.

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

“From the beginning, China has persistently 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 outbreak and its ability to mobilize all available resources.

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

There is still support for the government’s efforts.

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

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

Chi said China could use the accumulated wealth to sustain the country and itself for another year, beyond the date when Xi Jinping will likely seek a third presidential term, but it is a different story for the people.

“People are already suffering, particularly the considerable proportion who have low or middle income,” he said. “They can’t hold it. Limiting their mobility and economic activity will worsen their livelihoods ”.

Both big outbreaks of the Delta originated in domestic tourism, the only market left for the industry with no signs of international visitors returning anytime soon, even with the Olympic events just around the corner.

Huang said that, to some extent, Beijing was also in a quandary. “We have already seen outbreaks in countries that take a ‘coexistence with Covid’ approach, such as Singapore. If this also happens to China, people will turn to the government and ask, “Why didn’t you protect us?”

“This is the last thing China wants to see, especially in the run-up to the Winter Olympics early next year.”

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