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China’s COVID-19 conundrum

Strict pandemic measures have kept cases low, but they’re pushing some citizens to their limits


Workers in protective suits in a locked down neighborhood in Beijing Associated Press/Photo by Andy Wong

China’s COVID-19 conundrum

Richard Anderson, an American living in Beijing, watched health workers clad in white personal protective equipment cordon off the building next to his home. They set up a station to do PCR tests for COVID-19 on all the residents of that complex. Police were also there to ensure order, but Anderson (WORLD is not using his real name due to possible reprisals from the Chinese government) was still free to walk in and out of his housing area.

But as COVID-19 cases are surging in Beijing and other cities across China, it seems only a matter of time before Anderson and his building will also be locked down. Last week, Beijing reported its first COVID-19 deaths in six months, raising the alarm in the capital, which banned restaurant dine-in services, resumed telework and online classes, and shuttered malls.

Authorities in China have enforced a “zero-COVID” policy—strict measures that include lockdowns, mass testing, and contact tracing Despite the restrictions, China recorded 55,616 new cases on Wednesday, compared with an April peak of 29,520. China announced earlier this month the easing of some measures—including cutting the quarantine period for inbound travelers and dropping lockdown requirements for secondary contacts (close contacts of close contacts). But the zero-COVID policy is likely to stay even as residents grow increasingly weary.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, angry crowds protested against a lockdown in the industrial metropolis earlier this month. They shoved down barriers and clashed with COVID-19 prevention officials. In the central city of Zhengzhou, a father lamented the death of his 4-month-old daughter, who was allegedly denied timely medical care due to pandemic measures. In Inner Mongolia, a woman under lockdown jumped to her death from a 12th floor.

Anderson observed that a year ago, all his Chinese friends and contacts supported the zero-COVID policy. But now more people are questioning if authorities are making the right decision given the policy’s toll on the economy. “Every week, I see new shops that have disappeared just because they can’t afford to stay in business,” he said. Parents who have children studying abroad in Western countries see their children’s lives and wonder why they can’t just live with COVID-19, too.

Anderson said his daily activities are more like a gamble than a given. He planned to meet a friend for lunch earlier this week, but his friend notified him just hours before that he was instead in a seven-day quarantine. Someone who tested positive for COVID-19 had walked into his friend’s workplace, making him a close contact subject to lockdown.

Pandemic rules change almost as quickly as the virus mutates. In the southwestern province of Yunnan, Carol Liu was about to head into a mall to get a drink. She had a negative PCR test result within 48 hours of her intended entry. Still, she discovered authorities had updated the rule to require a negative result within 24 hours, barring her from the mall. Some parks also require a 24-hour negative result, said Liu (also not her real name). She noted that public transportation asks for a 48-hour negative result, but “lots of bus drivers don’t check.”

“It’s primarily the COVID tests that are driving everyone crazy,” said Liu. “People are either waiting in queue for a COVID test or doing a COVID test.” Delivery workers and some office employees need to do daily PCR tests, she said. Those seeking medical care also need to test for COVID-19 before entering a hospital, she added. While residents under lockdown don’t have to pay for their tests, others must pay between 70 cents to $2.25 per test—which quickly adds up. Liu has a preferred testing station she bikes to for its shorter lines.

As for lockdowns, she compares the unpredictability to “a lucky draw,” raising the example of delivery workers who could get stuck in buildings where they’re making deliveries. Liu was confined for six days recently. During the lockdown of her housing area, one of her neighbors was fired for not being able to show up for work, and another couldn’t attend a relative’s funeral.

Lockdown experiences vary depending on the building management, said Liu, who thought favorably of hers. It allows her complex to accept deliveries. She contrasted it with other management that might attempt to profit from the lockdown by striking deals with specific vendors and limiting the places residents can order from.

Beneath the daily frustrations with COVID-19 is a prevalent fear of death among Chinese citizens. Yet as the country grapples with rising cases and seemingly never-ending restrictions, Anderson said Chinese Christians have a hope their nonbelieving neighbors lack. And because believers are assured of their afterlife, Anderson thinks, “Chinese Christians have an opportunity to reach out in ways that weren’t obvious before.”

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