Opinion: Life in zero-Covid China is becoming intolerable

Editor’s note: Mateu Bossons is the editor-in-chief of the Shanghai-based online publication Radii. Lived in China since 2014. The opinions expressed in this comment are my own. I will see more opinion on CNN.


In the run-up to China’s Communist Party Congress last month, water cooler chatter in many offices here focused on a single question: Will the Congress abandon its zero-Covid policy?

Mateu Bossons

It didn’t take long for a response. In his opening speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to zero-Covid, a position even more inviolable since he won his unprecedented third term.

I can confirm that zero-Covid is alive and well. In the weeks since Xi’s speech, I’ve had dozens of nucleic acid tests, canceled a domestic work trip, and seen several colleagues quarantined in hotels or locked up at home. (On Friday, China announced a limited easing of some measures, although it did not say when the changes would take effect.)

Students in many cities in China are returning to remote learning. My 5-year-old daughter is in her second week out of school after her kindergarten closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. At this point, 2022 has spent more time at home than in the classroom.

Point restrictions have made it almost impossible to plan more than 20 minutes in advance. This is bad for business, of course, but it also affects the ability of ordinary people to go about their lives; you never know when you might get locked in your apartment, workplace, a shopping mall or even Shanghai Disneyland.

People line up last week for Covid-19 screening at a market closed by a temporary wall in Guangzhou, China.

Some friends, who have experienced an unexpected lockdown or two, have even taken to carrying a rucksack full of clothes, toiletries and work essentials at all times in case they get stuck in the local pub.

While I fully agree that China’s tough approach to containing Covid-19 has saved lives, the impacts of the policy are starting to look worse than the disease.

Economically speaking, all is not well in China, and the situation is at least partially to blame for China’s intransigent stance on Covid-19.

One in five urban youth in the country are out of work, business meetings and trade shows are postponed or canceled, and workplaces are regularly closed due to concerns about the coronavirus, including the recent lockdown at a manufacturing hub Foxconn, which left employees literally running off a highway.

China’s anti-virus measures are becoming increasingly difficult to defend as implementation becomes inconsistent and sometimes downright illogical.

Last week I flew back to Shanghai from Guangzhou, a city in southern China dealing with a Covid-19 outbreak, and left the airport without so much as a peep about quarantine or quarantine. self isolation

I walked around Shanghai, on public transport, sitting without a mask in an office, crammed into crowded elevators, for three days before the public health authorities contacted me and told me to quarantine.

I would assume that traveling from a city with a well-publicized disease outbreak would be enough to warrant an immediate self-isolation notice upon disembarking the plane. oh no

But here’s the real kicker: while I stayed at home for four days, my wife and daughter, who live with me, were able to leave the apartment and roam the city at will. Now, suppose I were infected with the virus and my family was now a carrier: why would a policy intended to protect people’s health “to the greatest extent possible,” to quote Xi, allow such a glaring risk to the public welfare?

Most worryingly, I suspect that China is on the verge of an explosive mental health crisis caused – or exacerbated – by the isolation and uncertainty that comes with prolonged and unexpected lockdowns.

Demand for counseling services has increased, and a national survey conducted in China in 2020 found that nearly 35% of respondents had psychological problems amid the pandemic.

During the two-month lockdown of this year’s Shanghai Marathon, the phones were ringing in the offices of mental health specialists. At my apartment complex, two people tragically lost their lives during the city-wide lockdown, and the speculation in our community chat group is that the lockdown was at least partially to blame.

Earlier this month, a 55-year-old woman suffering from anxiety disorders jumped to her death from her gated apartment building in the capital of China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

Her adult daughter was unable to leave the apartment after her mother’s suicide, as the door had allegedly been “welded for a month”.

Also this month, a 3-year-old boy died after a suspected gas leak at a gated residential complex in the western city of Lanzhou. On social media, the boy’s father alleged that he tried to alert local health workers to call an ambulance, but was denied quick access to emergency services due to his Covid-testing status. 19.

“My son could have been saved if he had been taken to the hospital earlier,” the father wrote in a now-deleted social media post.

While there is no shortage of vocal zero-Covid advocates on Chinese social media, there are also some expressing disapproval of the country online and offline.

Following the Inner Mongolia suicide, Chinese social media users lamented the role the lockdowns have played in fueling mental health problems and criticized government officials for not paying attention to the needs of people trapped in their apartments.

“Over the past three years, epidemic prevention lockdowns and chaos in various parts of China have been repeated … destroying the mental health of ordinary people and causing extreme anxiety and emotions, including anti-social and self-destructive behavior ” one user wrote. on Weibo. , China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform.

After the young man’s death in Lanzhou, the internet rage machine was in full swing, with related hashtags on Weibo racking up hundreds of millions of views.

The anger was mainly directed at the government’s censorship of publications related to the incident and “excessive measures to prevent Covid-19”. Unverified videos Online footage shows city residents taking to the streets in a rare show of resistance, calling out what appear to be public health workers and riot police.

Unfortunately, for those hoping for a quick end to zero-Covid, negative public feedback is unlikely to lead to immediate change. But if the economic situation does not improve and discontent grows, it could force the government to reassess its position, it has happened before.

After all, an unemployed and disaffected populace is not easy to govern, even with the world’s most brilliant array of censorship tools.

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