China holds the line on ‘Zero Covid’, but some wonder how long

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In a glitzy shopping district in Shanghai, about 40 people who were inside a Uniqlo store were told they would be spending the night there. A suspected case of Covid had been traced to the store.

Elsewhere in the same city, Anna Rudashko was ordered to return to an office building she had visited for a meeting the day before. She spent 58 hours there with more than 200 strangers, awaiting test results.

Across China’s Shaanxi province, Zhao Xiaoqing was on a second date, visiting a man at his parents’ house, when local authorities sealed off the area. She was quarantined with them for almost 30 days. (Luckily, she said, “I got along well with his family.)

China, which has largely kept the coronavirus at bay since 2020, is going further and further to quell the outbreaks that have proliferated across the country in recent weeks, and growing numbers of people are seeing their lives suddenly turned upside down as a result.

At least 20 million people in three cities were in total lockdown as recently as last week, and many other cities across the country were subjected to partial lockdowns and mass testing. Over the past month, at least 30 major Chinese cities have reported locally transmitted Covid cases.

The number of cases themselves is miniscule by global standards, and no Covid deaths have been reported in China’s current surge. On Friday, health authorities reported a total of 23 new locally transmitted cases in five cities.

But many cases have involved the highly transmissible variant of Omicron, and with each passing day the government’s relentless pursuit of “zero Covid” seems harder to achieve. Many wonder how long it can be maintained without causing widespread and lasting disruption to China’s economy and society.

“At this point, it’s really almost like a last-ditch effort, or certainly a very stubborn and persistent one, to ward off the virus,” said Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. “They’re really stuck up.”

So far, the leadership has only doubled down on its strategy – which relies on mass testing, stringent border controls, extensive contact tracing and instant lockdowns – to extinguish budding outbreaks.

Adding to the sense of urgency, 24 locally transmitted cases have been discovered in Beijing, where the Winter Olympics are due to open in two weeks. Several neighborhoods have been cordoned off and authorities have tightened testing requirements for entering and leaving the capital. Officials said this week that tickets for the Olympics would not be sold to the public due to concerns over the virus.

Authorities have hinted that the first case of Omicron in Beijing may have come from a package in Canada. They have since called on people across China to exercise caution when opening mail from overseas. In Beijing, mail goes through at least four cycles of disinfection, although experts say the risk of contracting the virus from surfaces, especially paper or cardboard, is very low.

“It seems unlikely to me, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible,” said Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. “I would certainly suggest that the authorities continue to investigate in case there are other things that might explain it.”

Chinese officials have previously pushed the conspiracy theory that the virus was brought to Wuhan, where it first emerged, by US military personnel. More recently, the central government accused local authorities in Xi’an of disrupting food supplies and medical care when the city of 13 million people was shut down in December.

“Beijing is finding it increasingly difficult to defend its Covid-zero policy,” said Lynette H. Ong, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “Costs are rising so high that they are starting to blame not just local authorities, but also foreigners – it is never the fault of central decision makers.”

Many in China support the zero-Covid strategy, which may have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and allowed most people to live fairly normally during the pandemic. But recent outbreaks have led to frustration and grumbling as more and more people are caught in the virus control net.

Lilian Lin, 29, was forced to suspend her modest online business selling basics like towels and stationery this month after being locked in her apartment in the northern city of Tianjin. of the country, because of a cluster of cases in the neighborhood.

To make matters worse, returning home for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday seems increasingly unlikely: restrictions have also been imposed in her hometown, the central city of Zhengzhou.

“I know others have it worse,” said Ms. Lin, who had been in her apartment for more than 10+ days with only her plants for company. “But I’m so tired of endless lockdowns.”

In Xi’an and other cities, officials said this week that restrictions would soon be eased as the number of cases fell. But in the longer term, there are fears that China, the last major country to stick to a zero-Covid strategy, has backed into a corner.

While more than 80% of the population – more than 1.2 billion people – have received at least two doses of the vaccine, most have received vaccines made in China, which studies have shown offer little defense. against Omicron infections. Experts speculate that Chinese leaders could wait for a more effective vaccine or treatment, or wait for a milder strain of the virus to emerge.

Until then, analysts say, growing complaints are unlikely to persuade Beijing to change its Covid policy. Eurasia Group, a consultancy, recently put China’s zero-tolerance strategy high on its list of political risks for the year, suggesting it will eventually backfire on the country and disrupt the global economy.

“The most effective policy to fight the virus has become the least,” wrote the report’s authors, Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan.

The stories emerging from the shutdowns range from the tragic, like the people deprived of medical care in Xi’an, to the absurd and even the endearing.

Ms Zhao, 28, had only met Zhao Fei once, on a blind date, before traveling to her family’s home in Xianyang city, north China last month. Shaanxi province. The authorities’ instant lockdown kept her there for four weeks and, it seems, changed both of their lives. She said he slowly won her heart and they plan to get engaged soon.

“A lot of friends were curious if the blind date was a success,” a beaming Ms Zhao said in a video on social media Douyin last week. “Of course it was.”

Others have had less pleasant experiences.

Ms Rudashko, 37, from Shanghai, was getting ready for bed last Friday when she received an email from her employer. The day before, she had gone to an office building where she does not work for an hour-long meeting, and now she is being told to return there for tests and a brief quarantine. Someone who had been exposed to someone with Covid had been on the same floor of the building on a different day.

Ms. Rudashko spent that night, and the next, in the office with more than 200 people she did not know. For 58 hours, they played cards, watched movies, drank wine and munched on charcuterie from an Italian restaurant. Ms Rudashko slept in a sleeping bag on a windowsill in the office kitchen. One person brought a tent; a couple brought their dog. There were no showers.

“The vibe was ‘It is what it is, so let’s make the most of it,'” Ms Rudashko, currently in the midst of a mandatory 12-day home quarantine, said by phone.

She said the person believed to have been exposed to the virus eventually tested negative. The experience left Ms Rudashko feeling China’s Covid policy was “unrealistic”.

“They’re really trying to scratch but it’s not happening,” she said. “And I feel like there’s no end in sight.”

John Liu contributed report.

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