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TematicheCina e Indo-Pacifico‘Zero-Covid Policy’ cripples China

‘Zero-Covid Policy’ cripples China

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The BBC in a recent report has recounted the experience of travellers on board a high-speed train in China in June 2022, which was stopped midway from Shanghai on the way to Beijing.  In the public address system, policemen asked all the passengers to get down as in the train was one passenger coming from a Covid high risk area. Brushing aside the protests from the passengers, everyone was herded into waiting buses, taken hundreds of miles away and placed under quarantine. Indeed, the anxiety to enforce a ‘Zero-Covid Policy’ has now turned into an obsession with the authorities in China. Analysts say, however, that the policy suits the bosses of the Communist Party of China, as no one cares for the untold sufferings of the common people, nor for the damage to the Chinese economy.

Some of the stories that are filtering out from behind the bamboo curtain are quite amazing. In the first week of August 2022, at China’s popular tourist resort of Sanya, over 80,000 tourists were trapped after the detection of some Covid-19 cases in the region and the clamping of a sudden lockdown. Public transport, including flights and trains, was suspended, tourist movement was completely stopped. The stranded tourists were informed they would have to stay for seven days and clear five Covid-19 tests before leaving the city. Earlier in July, more than 2,000 tourists were stranded in the resort town of Beihai as a lockdown was imposed. “China’s tourism industry has been hammered by the seemingly unending travel restrictions and snap lockdowns,” says CNN in a report. ‘Quarantine anyone considered to have been in contact with someone who had tested positive’ is the cornerstone of China’s Zero-Covid Policy. Quarantine centres like field hospitals, converted stadiums and exhibition centres suffer from overcrowding, poor sanitation and spoiled food. In this week, nearly 65 million residents of China were estimated to be under lockdown, though on a typical day this week only 1,248 new cases of domestic transmission were reported. What takes the cake, perhaps, is the experience of residents of the Sichuan province of China were an earthquake of 6.8 magnitude struck on September 5, 2022. The police and health workers refused to allow anxious residents of apartment buildings to escape to safer areas, adding to the angst of the common people against the strict Zero-Covid policy of the government, with lockdowns, quarantines and other restrictions. Survivors of the quake and rescue workers were subjected to daily testing for Covid. Entry permits were issued to rescue workers to the quake-hit zone only against a negative PCR test report taken within 24 hours, a green health code and no history of travel to cities with Covid-19 cases.

Communities that have been locked down have complained of inadequate food, shortage of other essentials and lack of medical care. Onerous travel restrictions have left migrants separated from their families for months. Residents in Beijing were asked to stay indoors on the mid-autumn holiday on September 10, 2022. The 21.5 million residents of Beijing were undergoing, in the first week of September, mandatory Covid testing every alternate day; all this after the report of 21 local Covid infections in a day. In outlying areas, the situation is often worse. In places in China near the Myanmar border, there have been almost constant lockdowns and businessmen have been forced to shift from these areas. The lockdowns have sparked protests online and confrontations with health workers and the police. After the Beijing secretary of the Communist Party of China Cai Qi was quoted as saying that mass testing and strict lockdowns would continue for the next five years, there were immediate protests in social media platforms. “Countdown to escape China” was one comment in Weibo, the popular social media platform in China. “The ultimate goal of fighting the epidemic is to return to normal life, and it seems that everyone has forgotten this,” said another. “For the next five years … what is the point of being alive then,” was a pithy comment.

The draconian Zero-Covid Policy is having deep impacts, not only on the Chinese economy but also internationally. “China’s economy has frozen up even worse than in early 2000. The economic dislocations are now spilling into the larger world, fuelling inflation, disrupting supply chains, triggering a retreat of foreign business from China and increasing external concern over China’s deepening isolation,” writes the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an article on China’s Zero-Covid Policy. “Many Western multinationals are reassessing their future in China, many have held off adding to new capacity in China; some have begun to shift production elsewhere.”  In a rare public criticism, a Chinese think-tank has called for a change in the Zero-Covid Policy under the Xi Jinping regime; pointing out that it was causing widespread disruption in trade and business. The Anbound Research Centre has been quoted in several news agencies as saying in a report titled ‘It’s Time for China to Adjust Its Virus Control and Prevention Policies’ that the periodic shutdown of cities, disrupting trade, travel and industry was slowing down the economy. On the contrary, the economies of the US, Japan and Europe were recovering after the easing of the pandemic restrictions. Observers point out that it is rare for a think-tank in China publicly to disagree with the policy of the Communist Party of China and its top leader. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has cautioned China against its Zero-Covid Policy. In May 2022 the WHO said the policy was not sustainable. “When we talk about the Zero-Covid strategy, we don’t think that it is sustainable, considering the behaviour of the virus now and what we anticipate in future,” WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. According to health experts, the Zero Covid Policy has left China dangerously vulnerable to infection, especially among the elderly, rather than reducing the infection. Having an army of health workers dedicated to testing, isolation and quarantine has left few staff available to accelerate vaccinations.  As a consequence of the Zero-Covid Policy, an estimated 100 million Chinese people above 60 years of age have not received more than one dose of vaccine. Booster rates are low. Enforcing Zero Covid in the absence of targeted and sufficient vaccination and boosting of the elderly creates higher danger for vulnerable populations.

The question is, why is China pursuing a draconian Zero-Covid Policy which is proving to be self-defeating? Analysts say it suits the interest of President of China Xi Jinping, who is likely to be handed over a record third term in power at the party congress of the CPC in mid-October 2022. “President Xi Jinping’s overriding objective appears to be ensuring a smooth pathway to the 20th Party Congress in the fall of 2022, when he will obtain a third five-year term. To give up Zero Covid would be tantamount to admitting failure of his leadership,” writes the Centre for Strategic and International Studies analysis.  President Xi himself and other bosses of the CPC in recent months have extolled the virtues of Zero-Covid Policy and derided the move of the USA and European nations to open up and take the Covid on the stride with more vaccination.  Zero Covid is now a part of aggressive Chinese nationalist sentiment and blind opposition to the West.  The distribution of mRNA vaccines manufactured by U.S. firms, Pfizer- BioNTech and Moderna, has not been cleared in mainland China, though Chinese vaccines offer considerably lower protection than the Western ones. This is putting politics and national pride over public health, someone observed. The ubiquitous reason for pressing ahead with a Zero Covid policy is also there. Tightened public health controls have the added attraction that they can harden the tools of suppression and facilitate state control. Who cares if common people suffer in mainland China and occupied areas like Tibet?

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