China’s rigid playbook of fighting the virus relying on vigorous contact tracing, mass testing, centralized quarantines, and harsh lockdowns is showing strains amid growing public frustration and anger. With the worsening outbreak across several cities, questions are mounting as to how long such stringent COVID measures can last.
Ever since the outbreak of the pandemic in late 2019, China is implementing a “zero-COVID” policy, doggedly going after every virus case no matter the emotional or economic costs. The rapid transmission of the new Omicron variant, which is more infectious than Delta, forces China to double down on current measures. China’s current policies have focused on controlling the Delta variant. With the Beijing Winter Olympics approaching, Beijing has appeared more determined than ever to continue its current course.
A third Chinese city has locked down its residents because of a COVID-19 outbreak, raising the number confined to their homes in China to about 20 million people. The lockdown of Anyang, in the central Chinese province of Henan and home to 5.5 million people, was announced on Monday after two cases of the Omicron variant were reported. Residents are not allowed to go out and stores have been ordered shut except those selling necessities. Another 13 million people have been locked down in Xi’an for nearly three weeks, and 1.1 million more in Yuzhou for more than a week. More than 2,000 people have been infected in Xi’an, China’s largest outbreak since the initial one in Wuhan.
Racing to contain the outbreak, Xi’an has imposed the world’s strictest lockdown measures since Wuhan became the initial epicentre of the pandemic. Overnight, thousands of people identified as close contacts were hauled away by the truckload to other counties and cities to be quarantined. For the rest, the farthest they could go is the metal door enclosing their neighbourhood residential compound. Some districts were put in tighter lockdowns, with residents not permitted to venture past their doorstep. In some neighbourhoods, the elevator service was cut off without further notice. The abrupt confinement has prompted an outcry as residents struggled to secure basic needs. The hashtag “hard to obtain food in Xi’an” quickly became one of the trendiest phrases on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. The food price has skyrocketed due to the shortage, reportedly forcing some to barter for a bag of rice.
For those who break the rules for whatever reason, the consequences have been swift and sometimes bloody. A video that emerged on social media over the weekend showed a white-shirted man beaten by two pandemic control officers for sneaking out to buy steamed buns. Compelled by harsh measures in China, some ordinary citizens have resorted to desperate measures to flee Xi’an, the city where a severe lockdown policy has barred 13 million residents from leaving their homes.
The heavy-handed approach has gone hand-in-hand with stringent measures put in place to cripple life in the affected areas. A city in Henan, a province bordering Shaanxi, has enforced a similar lockdown on 3rd January after announcing three asymptomatic cases. In Guangxi, a southern Chinese province next to Vietnam, Communist officials resorted to public shaming to punish rule breakers as reported in the media. In November 2021, a sudden lockdown in Zhuanghe, a city in northeastern China, over one COVID case caught a visiting delivery driver off guard. He and his wife ended up staying in their truck and living off instant noodles for an entire month until the travel curb was lifted.
The zero-COVID strategy remains the best choice for China but It’s posing a headache to the Communist government as it scrambles to gain the upper hand on the virus outbreak just four weeks ahead of the Winter Olympics, which Beijing has pledged to be “safe and grand.”