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Sink or swim: China’s ‘zero Covid’ strategy

Is China’s virus strategy paying off?

29 August 2020

9:00 AM

29 August 2020

9:00 AM

It has to be seen to be believed: a pool party attended by thousands, with the young bodies packed so tightly that you could barely see the water. There was a DJ, neon lights and outlandish acrobatics from performers on water jetpacks. The scenes, captured on video and sent around the world, were all the more extraordinary because the party was in Wuhan.

It wasn’t long ago that the same people were locked down in their millions. They were not even allowed to go outside for exercise. The only people you would see on the streets were the kuaidi xiaoge (‘delivery bros’), gig economy workers who dropped off groceries, medicines and everything in between.

Yet now in August, it’s westerners who are still obsessed with social distancing and the Wuhanese who are having pool parties. The state-run Global Times boasted about the city’s revival. The rave ‘serves as a reminder to countries grappling with the virus: strict preventive measures have a payback’. The state’s message is that while China was the first country into lockdown misery, it’s now reaping the rewards.

In much of the country, there’s no such thing as ‘a new normal’. Things are just normal. Children returned to school in May, while the usual overrated tourist attractions and overcrowded trains are back to their former, non-socially-distanced glory. (Classrooms tried social distancing, but with varying success — the average class size is 40.)


It’s not that the Chinese are hardier. If anything, we’re more hypochondriac than the West: when the virus struck, plenty of people bolted their doors from the inside before any government edict. In March, my 79-year-old grandma flew from London to Shanghai to avoid the virus as it took hold in Britain, and we kitted her out in mask, gloves and even goggles. In the end she was underdressed next to fellow passengers who turned up in hazmat suits. Upon landing, she was escorted straight into airport testing, then off to a quarantine centre for a week’s isolation. Later, when quarantining at home, her front door was rigged with an electronic alarm to make sure she didn’t try to leave.

China has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the virus and has imposed draconian methods to stop people from breaking lockdown. There is no talk of ‘learning to live with the virus’, no mention of an ‘R-number’ and the notion of herd immunity horrifies people. That’s why, when cases appear, the reaction is still to lock down completely and immediately.

In Britain, the threshold for local lockdowns seems to be about 40 infections per 100,000 people. In China, there is far less tolerance: Urumqi, a city of 3.5 million in Xinjiang, in the west of the country, was locked down last month when daily cases peaked at just 31 in total; a month earlier, parts of Beijing (which has a population of 22 million) endured the same fate with daily cases of 49. A city only reopens when there have been zero new infections for 14 days. So this month, while the Wuhanese are partying, people in Xinjiang are the latest to suffer a renewed local lockdown.

In China, lockdown means seeking permission from the state to go shopping, and permits are rationed by household. Earlier this year, some people were trailed by drones with loudspeakers telling them to mask up. Horror stories of the Urumqi lockdown are spreading on social media before quickly being met by censors; footage has emerged of city residents being handcuffed to rails in the street.

Controlling the message, like keeping people in lockdown, is easier in an authoritarian one-party state. China’s trigger-happy strategy of local lockdowns (more like incinerating the mole than whacking it) will have hidden victims, but good luck to anyone who wants to discuss them in public. There is little domestic debate over the educational and life chances inequality between children who received education throughout lockdown and those who didn’t. Not much is said about the cancer patients whose life-saving appointments were delayed.

At one feverish moment following the death of the whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang, even the national anthem was censored. Its opening line — ‘Rise up, those who do not wish to be slaves’ — was being co-opted by disillusioned citizens.

According to official Chinese figures (words that don’t necessarily inspire confidence) the Covid response has been a national success story. But there’s a problem: for how much longer can the country keep up its policy of near-total isolation? Even now, with a few exceptions, foreigners are not allowed in. This is quite a concern for what was, in simpler times, the fourth most–visited country in the world. It might be waiting for a vaccine, or for Covid to disappear somehow. But the ‘zero Covid’ strategy is a gamble — and one that may not pay off.

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