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China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy persists in the face of enormous human suffering

Shanghai, the financial capital of China and a city of more than 26 million residents, has been in lockdown for the last many weeks due to China’s worst outbreak of Covid since the beginning of the pandemic in 2019 in Wuhan province. For months, China has followed a ‘zero-Covid strategy’ – aggressive mass testing, strict lockdowns, and extended quarantine periods to deal with the pandemic. The stringent measures go as far as putting even asymptomatic Covid-positive residents in specialised isolation sites. The Chinese government claims the success, noting that it has been able to contain several Covid outbreaks with this strategy. However, the truth is that this success has come at the cost of people’s livelihoods and economic losses. The anger spilling on the streets of Shanghai is symbolic of people’s anxieties and wrath against this strategy.

Several viral videos coming from the city in recent days have highlighted angry locals resisting additional restrictive measures from the authorities, which have already upended their lives. On April 15, for instance, a video live-streamed on Chinese social media platforms showed residents of city’s Pudong district clashing with health authorities after they tried to block a government-mandated requisition of buildings to house Covid-19 patients. Footage also showed some healthcare staff wearing suits labelled ‘police,’ wrestling residents to the ground and leading several away toward a white van.

Other similar videos have shown people protesting the lockdowns, fighting the food and medicines shortage, and babies – sometimes those breastfeeding ones, separated from their parents. Some videos have also shown appalling conditions at the makeshift quarantine centres with inadequate medical facilities and shabby patient treatment procedures. Some of these centres’ conditions are so awful that some social media posts describe them as ‘refugee camps’ and ‘concentration camps.’

All this in an effort from the authorities to keep Covid at bay. Yet, statistics show how miserably they are failing. In the past two weeks since lockdown was reimposed to avoid a surge in infections, the daily average load of cases is around 1700. Moreover, cases have shot up in the past few days (see figure 1). These strict restrictions have also caused other kinds of deaths, including critical patients who needed immediate medical attention or who could not reach in time to the hospital due to curbs on local travel. An online initiative to document all deaths related to the restrictions had reached around 130 entries in the last few days.

Such an unusually harsh response to the pandemic has also brought a sharp rebuke from foreign governments and businesses. For instance, the United States has advised its citizens to reconsider travel to China “due to arbitrary enforcement of local laws and Covid-19 restrictions.” In another embarrassment to the authorities, diplomats from more than 30 countries wrote to the Chinese foreign ministry expressing concern over the policy of separating COVID-positive children from their parents. Besides the foreign governments, even businesses have stepped to express scepticism. On April 8, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China wrote to Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua complaining of ‘significant disruptions’ due to the lockdowns. It warned that such an approach had “an unfortunate impact on China’s image to the rest of the world while eroding foreign investors’ confidence in the Chinese market.”

And yet that has not stopped Chinese authorities from realising the folly in their approach. President Xi Jinping has, in his speeches, repeatedly highlighted the success of the Chinese policies and added that there would be no immediate change of approach in pandemic control measures. He also claimed that China’s success demonstrates the advantages of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) leadership and the socialist system. However, one columnist argued that his approach and boast of success smacks of a Mao Zedong-style political campaign based on one person’s will and that it could end up hurting everyone.

The party has repeatedly overlooked medical experts’ advice that China abandon its detrimental strategy and learn to coexist with Covid as the rest of the world has done by implementing relaxations on public movement and opening international borders. Authorities have also countered the reports of people’s anger by claiming that, on the contrary, government policies enjoy widespread public support. To support their claims, they have paraded social media posts that argue that Shanghai is not strict enough in its lockdowns and quarantines.

For the CCP, it is essential to highlight that it is in control of the situation. Shanghai is the city where the party was born. So any mishandling of the pandemic in this city will have long-term implications for the CCP’s legitimacy and, more importantly, Xi, who is preparing his credentials for another term as the General Secretary at the party congress later this year. He is keen to project China’s success in containing the virus to prove that its top-down governance model is superior and preferred to that of democracies. Therefore with each new variant, China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy has implemented more vigilant and frequent crackdowns on daily activity.

However, such politicisation of pandemic response is destined to yield less than optimal results while imposing disproportionate economic costs on the people who have to bear the brunt of extended lockdowns. Had the CCP put in such intense effort to remove vaccine hesitancy among the people, perhaps it would have been able to counter and control the pandemic’s spread.

About the Author
Fabien Baussart is the President of CPFA (Center of Political and Foreign Affairs)
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