26 September 2023

China’s zero-COVID policy taking a toll

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Even an earthquake failed to halt China’s rigid zero-COVID policy which Christina Lu* says is spreading chaos and economic pain across the nation.

A deadly earthquake resulted in landslides and killed 65 people recently in China’s Sichuan Province.

However, it couldn’t shake Beijing’s rigid zero-COVID policy, which made it impossible for locked-down residents of the city of Chengdu to flee their buildings.

In one video that spread online, workers refused to let one apartment compound’s residents out of its locked gates, despite their demands to leave.

Other residents were reportedly ordered to stop gathering and to go back inside, further stoking outrage and public criticism.

None of the 65 earthquake deaths has been tied to these cases, but the behaviour of the authorities during a natural disaster reflects the extreme measures that Beijing is willing to take to stamp out the virus — while the public pays the price.

Even as much of the world loosens COVID-19 restrictions, China has stubbornly stuck to a seemingly endless zero-COVID policy that has fuelled disillusionment and frustration while taking a heavy economic toll.

“When COVID-19’s Omicron variant hit China this spring, the party dug in its heels on its ‘zero-COVID’ policy,” my colleague, Helen Gao wrote.

“It enacted a series of lockdowns, from Shanghai to the north-eastern Province of Jilin, so ineptly planned that millions of residents were left wringing their hands over supplies of basic necessities like food and medicine.”

An estimated 65 million people across 33 different cities are now under partial or complete lockdown as Beijing attempts to quash COVID-19 by quarantining, surveilling, and mass testing the public.

On one day recently, China documented nearly 1,500 new cases in 103 cities, many of which were asymptomatic.

The result has been uncertainty and havoc, as panic-buying empties grocery store shelves and cities face delays in school start dates, business closures, and hours-long waits for COVID-19 testing.

Beijing’s approach has also battered the economy, driving up unemployment and derailing economic growth.

Even when cities are out of lockdown, the threat of one looms large.

In August, after Shanghai emerged from a brutal two-month lockdown marked by food and medication shortages, chaos erupted inside an Ikea outlet when officials announced they would lockdown the store over COVID-19 exposures.

To avoid being quarantined inside, customers desperately raced to escape the store, in some cases even confronting security guards as they fled.

These shifting policies have shaken the public — and eroded confidence in the State.

“As people reel from the policy hurricane, the bulwark they once leaned on is gone,” Gao wrote.

“A party that has been known since the 1980s for its pragmatism and commitment to social stability has turned itself into an agent of chaos and, in extreme cases, a direct threat to people’s livelihoods.”

*Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. She previously worked at the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research in Lusaka, Zambia. She is a graduate of Cornell University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in Government and Economics.

This article was originally published on the Foreign Policy website.

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