Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 30 October 2021

 ‘People are starting to wane’: China’s zero-Covid policy takes toll

Medical workers arrive at a residential community where people are under Covid lockdown in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia

Medical workers arrive at a residential community where people are under Covid lockdown in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. Photograph: China News Service/Getty Images

Latest Delta variant outbreak is testing the limits of people’s patience with aggressive containment measures

Sat 30 Oct 2021 10.00 BST

Last modified on Sat 30 Oct 2021 10.25 BST

On Friday, the Beijing Daily published an intricate graphic identifying two people sick with Covid-19 and everyone 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 “zero Covid” country.

Since the first coronavirus cases were reported nearly two years ago, China has run a zero-tolerance Covid policy. Its success in preventing the virus from spreading across the vast country serves as a stark contrast to the situations in many western countries. Since last year, fewer than 100,000 cases have been officially recorded, among a population of about 1.4 billion. At least 4,634 have died.

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

But the policy is intense. For just a handful of cases, measures have included strict border closures, localised lockdowns, travel restrictions, and the mass testing of tens of millions of people. Homebound flights booked by Chinese citizens who live abroad are often cancelled at the last minute.

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

But as the world begins to slowly open up, having decided to live with the virus mitigated by vaccinations, China is one of the few still clinging to a strategy of elimination. Analysts and health experts are starting to ask how long it can last, and the latest outbreak – which began early this month – is again testing the limits.

As of Friday the latest Delta outbreak had infected more than 300 people across 12 provinces, including the capital, Beijing, in little more than a week. The outbreak is centred on the province of Inner Mongolia but was linked to travellers.

In response authorities again launched mass testing, halted transportation and enacted local lockdowns.

Tourists stranded due to Covid in Ejin Banner, Inner Mongolia, leave on a charter train on Thursday

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 China public health policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “It’ll get more and more difficult over time. But costs are getting higher, and returns are diminishing quickly.”

On Chinese social media, while the majority of commenters support the government’s approach, frustration is also being voiced in Beijing, where one resident said fear had returned to their daily life, while another described people “panicking” as the situation there gets more tense.

“There is banning of dining and lockdowns everywhere. It is too difficult to even just 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, one tour leader said his guests had been stranded for six days and some elderly participants were running out of medicine. One alleged some guests were showing symptoms but there was no medical institution nearby. “It seems Ejina Banner doesn’t care about people’s life or death,” they said.

“People are starting to wane,” said Prof Chunhuei Chi, the director of Oregon State University’s centre for global health. “As with anywhere in the world we can see dragged into this pandemic for nearly two years, and everywhere we observe pandemic fatigue. That would surely also be affecting Chinese people.”

The current crisis is the second major outbreak of the highly transmissible Delta variant this year; both spread to multiple cities. The first reportedly sparked rare social unrest in Yangzhou this summer, over a government failure to deliver food to residents who had been locked down for three weeks.

People queue up for Covid testing in Yinchuan, in north-west China’s Ningxia Hui autonomous region

People queue up for Covid testing in Yinchuan, in north-west China’s Ningxia Hui autonomous region. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

At the time, some high-profile Chinese public health experts began to suggest that China should consider moving towards a policy of coexisting with the virus. Their comments received some support from citizens and scientific colleagues, but were drowned out by government censure.

Chi said China’s government was sticking to the strategy because it had little other choice, politically. Citing energy shortages and the housing industry crisis, he said ensuring there was no major outbreak of Covid was “possibly their last stronghold of credibility and legitimacy” domestically.

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

“From the beginning China has persistently wanted to show the world both its capability and credibility in terms of controlling this pandemic. They want to demonstrate how successful China has been in containing the outbreak and its ability to mobilise all available resources.

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

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 the pandemic is the biggest challenge to the forthcoming Winter Olympics in February and Winter Paralympics in March. Recently released guidelines showed entrants will quarantine before entering the “closed loop” of the competition world, completely separated from the rest of China to avoid cross-infection.

Chi said China may be able to use accumulated wealth to sustain the country and itself through another year – crucially, past the date Xi Jinping will probably be seeking a third presidential term – but it is a different story for the people.

“The people are already suffering, particularly the sizeable proportion who are in low to middle income,” he said. “They can’t sustain it. The limit to their mobility and economic activity will worsen their livelihood.”

Both big Delta outbreaks were sourced to domestic tourism – the only remaining market for the industry with no sign of international visitors returning soon, even with Olympic events around the corner.

Huang said that, to some extent, Beijing was also in a dilemma. “We’ve already seen flareups in the countries that adopt a ‘coexistence with Covid’ approach, such as Singapore. If this happens to China too, then people will turn to the government and ask: ‘Why did you not manage to 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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