China is caught in a zero-Covid trap of its own making

China is caught in a zero-Covid trap of its own making
China is caught in a zero-Covid trap of its own making

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s news bulletin Meanwhile in China, a tri-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on the world. Register here.


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CNN

It’s been just over a week since Chinese leader Xi Jinping began his third term in office with a resounding endorsement of his relentless zero-Covid policy.

But the pledge to stick to it is already fueling scenes of chaos and misery across the country.

In the northwest city of Xining, residents have spent the past week desperately begging for food as they suffer from the country’s latest strict lockdown measures; to the west, in Lhasa, the regional capital of Tibet, angry mobs demonstrate in the streets after more than 70 days of confinement orders.

In central Henan province, migrant workers have abandoned a locked Foxconn factory en masse, walking for miles to escape an outbreak at China’s biggest iPhone assembly site. And, in Shanghai’s eastern financial hub, things are grim even at Disneyland – the park abruptly closed on Monday to comply with Covid prevention measures, trapping visitors inside for mandatory testing.

In many other parts of the country, lockdowns, mandatory quarantines, relentless mass testing edicts and travel restrictions continue to cripple businesses and daily life, even as the rest of the world emerges from the pandemic.

Rather than easing Covid restrictions – as some had hoped in the run-up to the Communist Party’s five-year leadership reshuffle, Chinese officials tightened them after Xi’s sweeping endorsement of the strategy.

“The 20th Party Congress did not provide a timetable for moving away from zero-Covid. Instead, it underscored the importance of sticking to the existing approach,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior global health fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

The congress bolstered Xi as an unrivaled supreme leader and saw him stack the highest ranks of the Communist Party with staunch allies – including those who had loyally pursued his Covid policies.

“The new political ecology has also provided more incentive for local governments to impose more draconian Covid control measures,” Huang said.

A renewed zeal for politics can be seen most clearly in smaller towns. While metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai can draw on their experiences of major eruptions to implement more targeted lockdown measures, smaller cities without such know-how tend to pursue zero-Covid goals in ways more aggressive and extensive, Huang said.

The repeated cycle of lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing weighs heavily on the economy and society. The public’s patience is wearing thin and frustrations are mounting.

In Baoding city, Hebei province, on Monday, a knife-wielding father walked through a Covid checkpoint in a desperate attempt to buy powdered milk for his son. Video footage of the scene and his arrest sparked an online outcry; The next day, the local police tried to appease the spirits saying that the man had only been fined 100 yuan ($13.75) and that his “milk powder problem” child had been “correctly resolved”.

The death of a 3-year-old child in Lanzhou, Gansu province on Tuesday sparked further outcry, after the child’s family said lockdown measures had delayed rescue. Police later said the child had stopped breathing by the time officers arrived, but did not respond to the family’s accusations that an ambulance had been delayed. CNN has contacted Lanzhou authorities for comment.

In another sign of the sensitivity of the issue, Chinese stocks rallied on Wednesday following unverified rumors on social media that China would form a committee to prepare an exit from the zero-Covid policy.

Those rumors were quashed, however, when the Foreign Office said it was “not aware” of any such plan.

Meanwhile, experts say they see no signs of the Chinese government taking any action that would suggest it is rethinking its approach.

Chinese health officials argue changing course now would risk a huge spike in infections and deaths that could overwhelm the country’s fragile health system.

Beijing has so far refused to approve the use of mRNA vaccines developed in Western countries, which have been shown to be more potent than those made and used in China. Experts say China also lacks an emergency response plan to deal with the spike in infections.

But Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said such dire scenarios could be avoided with proper preparation.

Instead of spending a lot of time and resources on testing, contact tracing, quarantining and imposing lockdowns, authorities should introduce more effective vaccines and antiviral therapies and increase vaccination rates. in the elderly, Jin said.

With boosted immunity, asymptomatic or mild cases could be allowed to recover at home – freeing up space in hospitals to treat more serious cases, he said.

“The use of lockdown and containment measures to deal with an infectious disease with such a low mortality rate and high transmissibility is no longer appropriate. The whole world has abandoned this approach – no one can afford the cost, it just doesn’t work,” he said.

Another obstacle to zero-Covid pivoting is a pervasive fear of the virus among large swathes of the public, instilled by the Chinese government to justify its tough control measures, experts say.

“Authorities have demonized Covid, exaggerating its severity and death rate and talking about Covid symptoms for a long time. Many ordinary people are still very afraid of the virus, with cured Covid patients suffering severe discrimination and stigma,” Jin said.

It was in part those fears that drove thousands of migrant workers to flee the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou in panic, he said.

Videos of people traveling on foot, dragging their luggage down roads and across fields, went viral on Chinese social media over the weekend. Zhengzhou, a city of 12 million, imposed sweeping lockdown measures last month after identifying dozens of Covid-19 cases.

Foxconn’s factory has been scrambling to control an outbreak since mid-October, although the company has not disclosed the number of infections among its workers. Zhengzhou Airport Economic Zone, where the Foxconn factory is located, announced new containment measures on Wednesday.

As the Foxconn exodus thrust Zhengzhou’s outbreak into the spotlight, the city’s health authorities have tried to allay public fears. On Monday, the Zhengzhou Municipal Health Commission published an article on WeChat with the title: “Covid is not so horrible, but preventable and treatable”.

Huang, the Council on Foreign Relations expert, said misconceptions about the virus would complicate matters if China at some point decided to move away from zero Covid.

“Even if in the future China wants to change the narrative and downplay the severity of the disease, some people might not buy into the new narrative,” he said.

As winter approaches, experts warn China could be hit with a new wave of infections – and a new round of draconian lockdowns.

China reported 2,755 local infections on Tuesday, the highest daily tally since August.

“Judging from the situation in China, sooner or later there will be a major epidemic. China has made great efforts and paid a heavy price to prevent this from happening, but in the end, it will not be able to prevent the spread of such a highly infectious disease,” Jin said.

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