Just a month to go for the Winter Olympics to begin in Beijing, and China is desperate to ensure the world does not point a finger at it for being unable to control the Covid-19 surges in the country. It wants zero cases in China at any cost by the time the Games commence.
The zero-case policy it is implementing with force since 2020 is beginning to turn chaotic, leaving millions of residents frustrated and resentful, and short of food and essential supplies.
For both the Chinese Communist Party and the citizens, the new year has begun on a tense note. The one thing the party cannot tolerate is any fresh criticism from the west, read the United States, about its ability to control the Coronavirus. The people, having borne the brunt of the forced lockdowns, no longer want to be victims of the government’s actions.
The worst situation today is said to be found in Xi’an, the famous city famous for the terracotta warriors. Since December, it is in the grip of a Covid-19 wave, said to be the largest since the Wuhan outbreak in early 2020.
The party’s determination to root out the virus from the country can be gauged by the fact that less than 2,000 cases have been reported in Xi’an so far but that has warranted the near-inhuman lockdown. In comparison, the US or the UK are reporting cases in the thousands every day and yet no lockdown has been declared so far. Xi’an has recorded 143 infections since 9 December.
For over two weeks now, Xi’an’s 13 million residents have been confined to their homes. The city, formerly a tourist hotspot, “welcomed the new year with deserted streets, shuttered stores, sealed-off residential compounds and an empty airport”.
The lockdown reminds the Chinese of the one imposed on Wuhan in 2020 when 11 million people were literally sealed off for months.
The Xi’an residents cannot leave their homes even for a whiff of fresh air. Only one person per household is allowed to leave home every two days to buy essential goods. Nobody can leave the city, whatever the circumstances, without permission of the authorities. The process of seeking the permission is cumbersome.
Inter-city bus stations are closed down. Police barricades dot the highways leading to the city. Most flights from the city airport stand cancelled. All employees work from home. All indoor facilities, such as gyms, restaurants, cinemas, bars, and clubs are closed down.
The government has conducted millions of tests in the entire Shaanxi province. There is an unbelievable report of a baby having been tested 74 times for the virus. Xi’an is the main city of this region. The authorities justify the lockdown on the ground that the people are facing a “dual epidemic” – Covid-19 and haemorrhagic fever, which is described as a natural epidemic disease with a high fatality rate. There is reference to the Delta variant, and not Omicron.
Media reports are now saying that there is a “groundswell of anger and frustration at the local government has ensued, underscoring the growing challenge facing China’s zero-Covid policy, which relies on a playbook of mass testing, extensive quarantines and snap lockdowns to stamp out any resurgence of the virus”.
The social media platforms are full of complaints, cries for help and angry remarks by the residents of Xi’an. The average Chinese citizen had for the last two years patiently borne the brunt of the lockdown and was even supportive of the strict government measures. “But as local outbreaks continue to flare up, the outcry in Xi’an raises the question of just how long zero-Covid can be sustained before public support begins to taper off, with millions of residents trapped in an seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns.”
It is learnt that the people are facing short supplies of food items, medicine and other supplies. The government was publicly embarrassed recently when a livestream of a press conference on Covid-19 was flooded with online complaints about lack of groceries in the city. The hashtag “Grocery shopping in Xi’an is difficult” has been viewed 380 million times on Weibo.
The local government had campaigned while enforcing the lockdown that there would be no shortage of food supplies. This was done to ensure that people do not hoard food as that could lead to unrest and even food riots.
The frustration of the people is beginning to show. A video recording has gone viral of a man being beaten by “Covid prevention workers” when he tried to enter his residential compound with a bag of buns. Instances of people trying to escape from Xi’an have also been reported.
The CNN reported about an extreme case: “A man trekked for 100 kilometers (62 miles) across the Qinling mountain range from the Xi’an airport, avoiding multiple village checkpoints on the way before he was finally spotted and taken into quarantine on December 24, eight days into his journey, according to a statement from the Ningshan county police.”
The government, however, is unrelenting and intends to continue with the restrictions. It has the figures to show for it. The forced isolation has led to a drop in the count of fresh cases. In a few weeks more, the cases are expected to come to zero.
Tragic stories are beginning to emerge from other cities. Take the case of Ruili, a city on the border with Myanmar and known in China for the quality of its jade. Leaked reports claim residents were starving inside shipping containers converted into makeshift quarantine centers. The town has so far witnessed three consecutive lockdowns, with nearly 300,000 people forced out of their homes to the quarantine centers.
Till at least the Winter Olympics conclude, there appears no respite for the people of China. The government is willing to tolerate the anger of the people to achieve its zero-Covid objective when the Games open and the country is under the world glare.