Health

China’s latest lockdown shows stubborn resolve on zero-COVID

She can barely leave her room, let alone campus, and
all her classes are online.

Zhang’s university, like the rest of Xi’an, has been
under a citywide lockdown since Dec 22. It is the longest lockdown in China
since the first one in Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak began almost two
years ago.

In scenes recalling the early days of the pandemic,
hungry residents have traded coffee for eggs and cigarettes for instant
noodles. A pregnant woman and an 8-year-old boy suffering from leukaemia are
among those who have been denied medical care. People in need of lifesaving
medications have struggled to obtain them.

China’s ability to control the virus has come a long
way since the pandemic started: It has inoculated nearly 1.2 billion people and
set up a nationwide electronic health database for contact tracing.

Yet it has continued to rely on the same authoritarian
virus-fighting methods from early 2020, including strict quarantines, border
closings and lockdowns. These have led to food and medical shortages and
growing questions about how much longer its zero-COVID strategy, the last in
the world, can continue.

Despite the frustration, authorities in Xi’an on
Wednesday declared the city’s battle with the virus a victory. Fourteen days
into the lockdown, city officials said that Xi’an had achieved “zero COVID on a
societal level,” though its 13 million residents remained unable to leave home.

“The district security guards are like prison guards
and we are like prisoners,” said Tom Zhao, a Xi’an resident. Zhao, 38, said he
had joined dozens of chat groups last week searching for anyone who could help
him find medicine for his mother, who has early-stage diabetes.

Even big multinational companies in the city have been
affected. Two of the world’s largest memory chipmakers, Samsung and Micron,
said they have had to adjust operations at their manufacturing bases in Xi’an
because of the restrictions, potentially roiling the already fragile global
supply chain.

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Xi’an has reported 1,800 cases in its latest outbreak,
stunningly low compared with the daily case count in the United States. And as
the world struggles to contain the spread of omicron, in China officials have
reported only a few local cases of the variant and none in Xi’an.

Authorities are nevertheless worried, in a country
that has stridently stuck by its zero-COVID policy — and held up its success
fighting the virus as proof that its authoritarian style of leadership saves
lives.

The Beijing Winter Olympics and the Lunar New Year
holiday are a few weeks away, and China’s vaccines appear to be less effective
than their Western competitors, particularly against variants. The country has
yet to approve mRNA technology for its vaccines, and while booster shots are
now widely available, their takeup in the country has been slower than the
initial jabs.

“The Xi’an epidemic is the most serious after Wuhan
was shut down,” said Zeng Guang, a Chinese public health researcher who visited
Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic and was quoted in state media
Wednesday. “People across the country should give Xi’an a lot of support,
hoping that Xi’an will accumulate new experience in epidemic prevention.”

So far, the experiences have been grim. Tens of
thousands of people have been relocated to centralized quarantine facilities to
stop the spread. Several top city officials have been fired and the head of
Xian’s big data bureau was suspended.

On Tuesday, the vast health code system used to track people
and enforce quarantines and lockdowns crashed because it could not handle the
traffic, making it hard for residents to access public hospitals or complete
daily routines like regular COVID testing.

Many were incensed when a woman in the city, eight
months pregnant, lost her baby after she was made to wait for hours at a
hospital because she was unable to prove she did not have COVID-19.
(Authorities responded by firing officials and requesting an apology from the
hospital.)

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Days into the lockdown, residents began to post on
social media about how hard it was to get groceries or order food. After being
reassured by officials that it was unnecessary to stock up, residents across
the city were caught off guard when an initial policy allowing one member of
each household to leave every two days was eliminated.

Officials later acknowledged the mistake and quickly
posted images of volunteers delivering groceries. But by then, residents were
already complaining online that officials had put the pursuit of eliminating
the outbreak above the well-being of citizens.

Zhao, who moved in with his parents before the
lockdown to help take care of them, watched as their neighbours bartered for
food. Several days ago, officials came in trucks to deliver vegetables, announcing
their arrival on loudspeaker. Zhao and his parents received two plastic bags: a
white radish, a head of cabbage, three potatoes, a carrot and two zucchinis.

They fared much better than others.

Zhao said a friend who lived in a different district
did not get any food, and another told him that her building elevator was
turned off except for one hour a day when residents were allowed to do
compulsory testing and walk their pets.

As the situation worsened across the city, people
posted videos and heartfelt appeals for help. “SOS,” wrote one resident whose
father could not get medical care when he suffered a heart attack. He later
died, according to a post from his daughter, who shared the story on Weibo, a
major social media platform in China.

Zhao Zheng, the father of an 8-year-old boy with acute
lymphoblastic leukaemia, found himself battling with staff at several hospitals
in Xi’an after his son’s Dec 28 appointment was cancelled. Each hospital asked
for proof that he was no longer in quarantine and documentation that Zhao and
his family had not recently been exposed to the virus.

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“Nobody could issue this document for us at all,” said
Zhao, 43, who until recently had owned a small construction company.
Eventually, with the help of local reporters, Zhao and his wife were able to
find a hospital on Jan 2. Their son is now undergoing weekly treatment.

Amid the outcry, the government this week created
special “green channels” for pregnant women and patients with “acute and
critical illnesses” to get medical care more easily.

By Thursday, top officials moved further to try to
douse public anger. Liu Shunzhi, head of the city’s health commission,
apologized for the stillbirth and for wider problems during the lockdown. Sun
Chunlan, a vice premier overseeing the central government’s efforts to contain
COVID-19, ordered local health authorities to ensure there was no repeat of
deadly delays in hospital treatment.

“It’s extremely painful that problems like this have
occurred and we feel deep remorse,” Sun said, according to Chinese state media.
“This has revealed sloppiness in prevention and control efforts, and the
lessons are profound.”

To critics, the pain, suffering and confusion caused
by the lockdown has made Beijing’s virus strategy appear increasingly
unsustainable.

“In this world, nobody is an island,” wrote Zhang
Wenmin, a former investigative journalist who lives in Xi’an. Zhang, better
known by her pen name Jiang Xue, published an account of her first 10 days in
lockdown on social media.

“The death of any individual is a death of all,” she
wrote.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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