There is egg on the face of mandarins of the Communist Party of China as the zero-Covid policy thrust on the common people of Zhongguo, or the Middle Kingdom, with almost fanatical zeal by them has failed miserably.
Reports from Beijing say at least 1,000 new cases of the virus are still being reported every day in different cities of China in the winter of 2022. People in China had hoped that the zero-Covid policy would come to an end after the smooth nomination of President Xi Jinping to a record third term in power in October 2022. Indeed, there was some relaxation too immediately after this. But now the dreaded policy has come back and people are scared of the repetition of the pain of lockdown.
While the zero-Covid policy has clearly failed to prevent the outbreak of the disease, the draconian control measures that are confining millions of people to their homes are adding to frustrations of the common Chinese people and have sparked fights with health workers. Videos shot in Guangzhou in November 2022 showed angry residents knocking over barriers set up by health workers.
According to an AP report from Beijing on November 17, Chinese authorities have faced more public anger after the death of a second child owing to the overzealous enforcement of anti-virus measures. The four-month-old girl had died from vomiting and diarrhoea while in quarantine at a hotel in Zhengzhou, said the AP report, quoting social media and other reports. It had taken her father 11 hours to get help after emergency services refused to deal with them and she was finally sent to a hospital 100 kilometres away.
This death came after leaders of the ruling CPC had promised earlier in November, following uproar over the death of a three-year-old boy from carbon monoxide in northwest China, that people in quarantine would not be blocked from getting emergency medical help. The father of the boy had blamed health workers in the city of Lanzhou for trying to stop him from taking his son to hospital. Yet another reported case was that of a pregnant woman who had miscarried after she was refused entry to a hospital in the north-western city of Xi’an and forced to sit outside in the cold for hours.
Each such case has proved the hollowness of the promise of the ruling CPC that people in quarantine who have not been able to show negative test results will not be prevented from getting emergency help. Overzealous local officials who fear losing their jobs or facing prosecution if an outbreak occurs under their jurisdiction have imposed stringent and often unauthorized measures. “Once again someone died because of excessive epidemic prevention measures. They put their official post above everything else,” said a social media post.
Leaders of the CPC, who consider Indians their bêtes noire, face an ironic situation as millions of Chinese people suffering from the threat of more lockdowns have turned to the legendary singer of Hindi cinema Bappi Lahiri’s super-hit song “Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja” from the movie ‘Disco Dancer’ to give vent to their frustration over the stringent zero-Covid policy in China. A news agency report from Beijing on October 31, 2022, said, in the social media networks the song composed by Bappi Lahiri was being sung in Mandarin as “Jie me, jie me,” which translated into: “Give me rice, give me rice.” People also showed before the video cameras empty vessels expressing how they were being deprived of essential food items during the draconian lockdowns.
The zero-Covid policy has forced thousands of people to live in inhuman conditions in China, causing fear, anger and confusion among the people. Under the zero-Covid policy mandated by President Xi Jinping, cities and localities have to undergo strict lockdowns and people shifted to quarantine centres from areas reporting any positive case. In almost all cities, including Beijing, testing is mandatory for all citizens. Without a negative test result, people cannot enter public places, restaurants and markets.
Now in the middle of November 2022 about 1.3 million people in Shanghai, the largest city of China with a population of about 25 million, have been ordered to undergo mass testing, and asked to stay indoors till the results are available. Videos have surfaced, showing security officials cracking down on people protesting against the lockdowns. These are repetitions of measures ordered in the summer of 2022 when Shanghai experienced a lockdown for two months that had devastated its economy and resulted in food shortages, prompting confrontations been residents and the authorities, something rare in the autocratic society of China. At the start of the lockdown, authorities had said it would last only a few days, but had kept extending the deadline.
Shops, schools and restaurants in different parts of the country have been asked to close. Hundreds of workers engaged in the iPhone factory of Apple Inc in Zhengzhou are fleeing to their country homes, walking back more than 100 kms, to beat Covid-app measures designed to control the movement of people.
Protests against lockdown have been reported also in Tibet, under illegal Chinese occupation since 1950. Tibetans and Han Chinese migrants have milled in the streets of Lhasa together to protest against the lockdown that has lasted for 74 days. A video has been smuggled out of Lhasa which has been under tight surveillance since the anti-government protests in the Tibetan capital in 2008.
A Reuters report from Beijing says China is combating numerous Covid-19 flare-ups, from Zhengzhou in the central Henan province to Chongqing in the south-west. Students in schools in different districts of Beijing have settled for online classes from November 21, 2022, and officials have asked residents in some of the areas in the city to stay at home after the reporting of two Covid deaths in the city on November 20. The day before, on November 19, Beijing wore an eerie look, with most of its residents staying home. The authorities in several districts have asked people to ensure less flow of cross-district personnel. The authorities of Chaoyang district, the most populous and the worst hit among all the Beijing districts, have asked people not to leave the area unless necessary; and that too after providing negative nucleic acid test results taken within 48 hours.
The southern city of Guangzhou, with a population of nearly 19 million people, ordered on November 21 a five-day lockdown in Baiyun, its most populous district. Dine-in services have been suspended and nightclubs and theatres shut in the main business district of the city. In the northern city of Shijiazhuang mass testing has been announced in six of the eight districts in the city. Residents have been asked to shop online and schools asked to suspend in-person teaching.
Early in November, following the smooth completion of the 20th Congress of the CPC and President Xi Jinping having emerged the uncrowned king of China, Beijing had relaxed its zero-Covid policy marginally by doing away with the much criticized “circuit breaker” strategy of suspending international flights if any positive Covid-19 cases were detected on arrival and had cut the quarantine time for international travellers from 10 days to eight. Now, however, with the reporting of fresh cases, people of China are again caught in the vice-like grip of the zero-Covid policy.
Ironically, as the World Health Organization and health experts have already warned, the zero-Covid policy, instead of improving the situation, has left China dangerously vulnerable to infection, especially among the elderly. As early as in May 2022 WHO said zero-Covid was not a sustainable policy, considering the anticipated behaviour of the virus in future. Control measures must be balanced against the impact they had on the society and the economy.
With all the health workers being preoccupied with testing, isolation and quarantine, few people are available to administer vaccination, health experts have pointed out. Zero-Covid may have to be in place in China for a year or more as millions of elderly people are yet to be vaccinated. Booster rates are also low. To enforce zero-Covid in the absence of targeted and sufficient vaccination and boosting of the elderly would create higher dangers for the vulnerable populations. As of mid-October 2022, more than 43 percent of the Chinese population were yet to get the booster dose of the vaccine.
To make matters worse for Beijing, the domestically developed vaccines of China are considered relatively ineffective; yet the mandarins of CPC with their ego sky-high, have refused to approve foreign vaccine brands such as Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and J&J. Two Chinese vaccines have proved effective in preventing death and serious disease, but not in stopping the spread of the disease. Significantly, to enter an office building or a public place in China one requires a negative Covid-19 test report, not proof of vaccination. Besides, the zero-Covid policy means only a small proportion of the Chinese population has built immunity the hard way, having undergone an infection.