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

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-weekly update that explores what to know about the country’s rise and how it affects the world. Register here.

Hong Kong

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

But the commitment to follow through is already fueling scenes of chaos and misery across the country.

In the northwestern city of Xining, residents spent last week desperately begging for food as they endured the latest of the country’s strict lockdowns; to the west, in Lhasa, the regional capital of Tibet, angry crowds have been protesting in the streets after more than 70 days of stay-at-home orders.

In the central province of Henan, migrant workers have left a shuttered Foxconn factory in droves, walking miles to escape an outbreak at China’s largest iPhone assembly site. And in the eastern financial center of Shanghai, things are grim even at Disneyland: the park abruptly closed its doors on Monday to comply with Covid prevention measures, trapping visitors indoors to mandatory tests.

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

A woman wearing a face mask walks past a mural depicting epidemic control workers in protective suits in Beijing, Tuesday, Nov.  1, 2022.

Instead of relaxing Covid restrictions, as some had hoped before the five-year Communist Party leadership reshuffle, Chinese authorities have stepped up after Xi’s broad endorsement of the strategy.

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

The congress reinforced Xi as a peerless supreme leader and saw him stack the top ranks of the Communist Party with staunch allies, including those who had loyally carried out his Covid policies.

“The new political ecology also provided more incentives 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 outbreaks to implement more targeted lockdown measures, smaller cities without that knowledge tend to pursue zero-Covid goals more aggressively and extensively, he said. Huang.

The repeated cycle of lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing is taking a heavy toll on the economy and society. Public patience is wearing thin and frustrations are growing.

On Monday in Baoding city, Hebei province, a knife-wielding father went through a Covid checkpoint in a desperate attempt to buy powdered milk for his son. Video footage of the scene and his subsequent arrest caused an uproar online; The next day, local police tried to calm people down, saying the man had been fined just 100 yuan ($13.75) and that his son’s “milk powder problem” had been “properly resolved “.

The death of a 3-year-old boy in Lanzhou, Gansu province on Tuesday sparked another outcry, after the boy’s family said lockdown measures had delayed emergency services. Police later said the boy had stopped breathing when officers arrived, but did not address the family’s allegations that an ambulance had been delayed. CNN has reached out to Lanzhou authorities for comment.

In another sign of how sensitive the issue has become, Chinese stocks rallied on Wednesday after unverified social media rumors that China was forming 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 plans.

Meanwhile, experts say they see no signs the Chinese government is taking steps to suggest it is rethinking its approach.

Chinese health officials maintain that a change of heart 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 surge in infections.

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

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

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

“Using containment 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 bear the cost, it just doesn’t work,” he said. to say.

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

“The authorities have demonized Covid, exaggerating its severity and death rate and talking about long-lasting Covid symptoms. Many ordinary people are still very afraid of the virus, and patients who have recovered from Covid face severe discrimination and stigmatization Jin said.

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

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

The Foxconn facility has been struggling to contain an outbreak since mid-October, although the company has not disclosed the number of infections among its workers. On Wednesday, the economic zone at Zhengzhou Airport, where the Foxconn plant is located, announced new lockdown measures.

As the Foxconn exodus thrust Zhengzhou’s outbreak into the spotlight, the city’s health authorities have sought to allay public fears. On Monday, the Zhengzhou Municipal Health Commission published a WeChat article 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 ever decided to move away from zero Covid.

“Even if in the future, China wants to change the narrative and downplay the seriousness of the disease, some people may not accept the new narrative,” he said.

As winter approaches, experts warn that China could face a new wave of infections and a new cycle of draconian lockdowns.

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

“Judging by the situation in China, sooner or later there will be a major outbreak. China has deployed enormous efforts and paid a high cost to prevent this from happening, but in the end, it will not be able to stop the spread of such an infectious disease,” Jin said.

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