Mental well-being of Chinese citizens get crushed under the weight of zero-COVID

“Hope…which is whispered from Pandora’s box only after all the other plagues and sorrows had escaped, is the best and last of all things.”

Hope. The sentiment that keeps us moving forward; the voice that whispers “Just one more time”; the feeling that encourages us during our darkest times, telling us we’ve made it through life so far, we’ll make it through the rest of it too. Hope is essential for life to be lived- and hope is exactly what the Xi’s government has snatched away from the citizens of the People’s Republic of China.

In the last two years, while the rest of the world rose to the occasion and meandered its way through the global health crisis, China has clung onto its futile attempt at feigning control over an impossible situation. The result? The country continues to impose unbearable living conditions within the country, otherwise it would risk losing millions of people and the possibility of devastation on a mass scale, if restrictions are lifted now.

The adoption of a zero-COVID policy by Xi’s government to ensure “dynamic clearing” of the virus has left the country’s citizens living in a perpetual state of terror- fear of the state and powers-that-be, than that of any virus.

The country’s aggressive stance at tackling the virus is spread across various responsive measures, including contact tracing, constant testing at a mass scale, flash lockdowns and social isolation- every one of these ‘protective’ measures plays a prominent role in creating further, more insidious problems for the common man.

The COVID-19 pandemic, at its onset in 2019, was a curveball no country was prepared for. Millions suffered, but they had the comfort of solidarity; the entire world stood still and populations across the globe went through the same distress together. However, people in China are robbed of such small mercies as well– the rest of the world has moved forward to embrace the new normal, but China continues to live in the all-consuming shadow of the virus.

While other nations accepted the realities of the pandemic (such as community spread and herd immunity), China’s insistence on suppressing and containing the spread of the virus has left it with a rather serious Achilles’ heel.

And while Beijing pats itself on the back for tackling the pandemic with such an effective strategy, the ground-level reality reveals a picture of people left devastated. The pandemic has brought forth a slew of mental health issues, with a prevalence of emotional distress, depression, anxiety, panic, stress, irritability, insomnia, PTSD symptoms and emotional exhaustion. For Asian societies however, where discussions revolving around mental health still remain a taboo, the uncomfortable conversation has become an inevitability in the current scenario.

American psychologist, George Kelly, theorized that anxiety largely arises from a person’s inability to anticipate or predict future events. With largescale uncertainty clouding the lives of Chinese citizens living under the zero-COVID policy, it doesn’t take much to estimate just how adversely people’s psyches are afflicted.

The strict measures to curb the COVID spread have left people in the country feeling more like commodities than human beings. Jokes regarding people’s “expiry dates” have become rampant, wherein the remaining time for the COVID test validity has become the most important part of an individual’s life. Mass scale testing has become the reality for people who wish to participate in society again. However, being reintegrated with society comes at the steep price of “expiring” after every 48-72 hours; people are required to retake the PCR test after the prescribed period is over, thus renewing their “shelf life” to exist in the social world after proving their ‘negative’ status.

A Shanghai resident reported that making a doctor’s appointment meant getting a negative PCR test a day in advance, which took an entire 2 hours due to inefficient facilities and booths being closed earlier than proclaimed. The resident recounted his struggle to get his “all access entry ticket”, and also emphasized how planning his life around this entry ticket was proving to be exceedingly frustrating and complicated.

As one would expect, people are also having to make the tough choice to simply not participate in society rather than go through the daily hassle of the new norms, pushing the already deprived people into a more serious state of isolation. This stands truer for the elderly population, who lack the technological skills required to manoeuvre this everyday maze of proving their “health”, resulting in a constant state of stress and anxiety.

People’s levels of perceived stress may remain at a high, and living under such anxiety provoking circumstances means that people are constantly caught in the body’s fight-or-flight response. In the outside world, people can never trust when authorities may sweep down on a place, closing down and imposing a snap lockdown, citing the presence of a “contact trace” element.

Research shows that depression and anxiety soared globally during the first year of the pandemic, with a massive increase of 25% in these disorders. In China itself, even though reliable numbers are hard to come by, a survey held in April at the time of the Shanghai lockdown found that over 40% residents were at the precipice of depression. A popular Chinese search engine, Baidu, also saw a 253% increase in keyword search for “psychological counselling” in that month.

Another dire consequence of the zero-COVID policy impacting the lives of people is the threat of loneliness. Man is a true social animal, and it has been proven time and again that we don’t exist in isolation, rather, our identity is largely tied to our interpersonal relationships and the role we play in life with regard to significant others.

In fact, when first acquiring the concept of self in our formative years, we first recognize and identify with our social self–­ children learn their worth by subscribing to the worth that other people attach to them. So, if the development of self begins at home with the relationships we share with our caregivers, what is to happen to infants in China being separated from parents under the guise of adherence to the strict policy protocols?

Infancy is a crucial age for the development of healthy attachment styles and emotional development in children. The unanticipated separation of infants from parents (which is being reported within the country) at such a milestone is likely to have catastrophic effects on the development of children- if children adopt an unhealthy attachment style due to the chaos and turmoil in their environment, it is likely to lead to a lifetime of problematic relationship patterns and inability to deal effectively with emotional issues.

Asian cultures tend to take the words “It takes a village to raise a child” to heart, but in the current political scenario, there is no proverbial village left in China. Extended lockdowns over the past couple of years have limited the worldly exposure required by children for normal development. This sensory deprivation, as well as lack of an enriching environment and social isolation, plays an inhibiting role for conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, and increases the likelihood for such disorders in children.

Furthermore, the overly aggressive tactics undertaken by the authorities to combat the spread has left citizens scarred. From being separated from family by force, getting sealed inside homes with bolts and wires, being made to take PCR tests at 5 am, to having authorities enter houses forcefully for sanitization purposes– being subjected to such circumstances has left many people experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the lockdown. A study conducted at Peking University reported that longer periods of isolation were correlated to more severe PTSD symptoms.

Moreover, the most essential factor to be able to face a crisis has also taken a large hit with the extended zero-COVID policy lasting over 2 years. Resilience, in the sphere of mental health, is often regarded as the foremost protective factor which predicts the success with which a person may withstand challenges. Unsurprisingly, China, as a country seems to be losing out on this saving grace as well. Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking, which lists the best to worst places to be during the pandemic, placed China in the second-last spot of the list.

Beijing’s unwillingness to mitigate the problems of its citizens in other respects also suggests a dark future for the mental health of the country.  Even with the rising demand for mental health facilities and practitioners, the CCP’s politicized reach in the country is so deep-rooted, that genuine help from legitimate sources is unlikely to come by for the masses.






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